MARYCLAIRE WELLINGER Poet & Painter
Reviews and Interviews

Outer limits and local monuments
A triumph for Brandeis,

and a birthday salute to Ken Beck
BY CHRISTOPHER MILLIS


"Painting 4"
At the Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University, Waltham, through December 7.

"Ken Beck 60th:A Retrospective Birthday Exhibition"
At the Gallery at the Piano Factory, 791 Tremont Street, Saturdays and Sundays through November 23.



SPLIT ROTTEN TOMATOES: Ken Beck's language enjoys a surface simplicity -- bulbous, spoiled tomatoes, a blue plastic toy shovel, a fire hydrant -- placed in the service of mystery and grandeur



SECULAR RESPONSE 2 A.R.: Ingrid Calame's painting invites meditative contemplation.



IN KARREZZA NOEMATA: Jimmy O'Neal's work makes the contradictory claims that painting is a hoax and painting is magical.


How can you not love a painter who plants a 30-foot motorboat in the middle of the gallery where his work is on display a motorboat that sports at its helm a weird, giant, paintbrush-wielding machine that implies everything on the walls was created by an industrial automaton? Maybe you can resist, but I cant.

Jimmy ONeals In Karrezza Noemata is the showstopper of "Painting4," a hilarious, unruly, breathtaking, and ultimately tender work in the dynamic exhibit at Brandeis Universitys Rose Art Museum. Pay attention, Boston. Brandeis is back.

"Painting4" is one of those rarest of Boston-area art exhibits: the space is huge; the artists are young, accomplished, and stylistically extreme; and the care given to displaying their work has been generous and exact. Theyre a fortunate four.

But first, a word from the foyer. You walk into the stately and streamlined Rose Art Museum and are met by an exhibit of an altogether different kind: a richly packed show of Abstract Expressionism from the museums holdings, with representative works by Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell, Franz Kline, Philip Guston, Hans Hofmann, and other artists who for better or worse shaped a generation. With their bold forms and often large frames, the Abstract Expressionists made me feel as if I were in the presence of armed border guards. And indeed, to pass through that exhibit to "Painting4" downstairs made the border guards appear to be protecting their grandchildren. In some abiding ways, Jimmy ONeal, Michael Lin, Katharina Grosse, and Ingrid Calame, all born in the 1960s, are heirs to the experiments and breakthroughs (and limits) of the painters you meet in the first-floor gallery.

One thing the Abstract Expressionists generally were not, however, is humorous, so to step into Jimmy ONeals space is to feel a great weight lift and a near-giddiness set in. And its not just because the predominant color he works in is white or because fluorescent lights punctuate his ceiling-to-floor paintings. It has more to do with the message he sends via the paint-machine-toting air boat in the middle of the room. Positioned at the end of the monolithic equipment is a tremendous, ornately framed canvas-in-progress. The "canvas" is actually a panel on which somebody or something has applied curling swaths of luminous, mirrorized paint. Its a raucous, crazy amalgam that makes two immediate and contradictory claims: painting is a hoax, and painting is magical.

Aside from that one object, nothing else on the walls is framed. Instead, the six-foot-tall panels abut one another to form an almost seamless expanse of huge, shimmering shapes. Some of these gradually reveal themselves as figurative an upside-down devil, a cartoonish face. And as you move around the room, you find other surprises in the form of embedded objects from the natural world. But it all makes sense. ONeals expansiveness, which is literal and figurative, moves you from the dreamy chamber of the imagination back to mad reality. In one panel, hes woven the shed skin of a snake into what at first looks like a purely arbitrary shape; design and disorder are one.

If Jimmy ONeal were a dancer, hed be in the air a lot and spinning; if Ingrid Calame were a dancer, Im not sure shed move at all. Like ONeal, Calame covers every inch of wall space with painting for Secular Response 2 A.R. Unlike ONeal, she works in one color, a flat, muted green, and against one background material, mylar. The effect of her tall, continuous, abstract washes of paint is to deliver you into a meditative state, not trancelike so much as contemplative. She achieves that effect in part by not painting almost half her surfaces. The translucent, blurry, off-white mylar stands bare for large expanses against white walls, so that your eye moves from the rising seawalls of paint to moments of complete suspension as if the enamel paint were a wave stopped in a film still.

Waves of a different kind describe Katharina Grosses untitled site-specific painting. Grosse has painted the walls within the museum theyre visible through the glass-fronted exterior of the building in clouds of wispy, sprayed-on acrylic pastels. The effect is smooth, decorous, and inviting. Its true that her work resembles that of Paul Jenkins circa 1978, but I enjoyed the prettiness. Her ćthereal, butterfly-wing shapes present a brilliant, jeweled contrast to the buildings otherwise box-like design.

Much as I admire Michael Lins conceit he makes pedestrian art that youre meant to walk on and lounge on I couldnt make sense of the way hes treated the floorboards and the accompanying pillows. Who wants to spend time among garish, faux Pop Art flowers? His floor panels and cushions look like designs for an Austin Powers disco scene. The wall text invites lounging; the objects themselves dont. But, hey, shagadelic, baby.

ITS HARD TO IMAGINE a painter more unlike the four featured in "Painting4" than Bostons own Ken Beck, whose retrospective at the Piano Factory will likely prove one of the best underground shows of the season, here or anywhere. Unlike the latest wave of Abstract Expressionists at Brandeis, Beck is steeped in the representational still-life and landscape traditions of Western art. Hes a painters painter whose every gesture testifies to his discipline, intelligence, and skill.

The exhibit, in celebration of Becks 60th birthday, was both curated and designed by the artist, and never has so full a show looked so good. Spanning more than 20 years of work, it demonstrates both his growing command of the medium and the emergence of his signature style, what Ill call his wry monumentality. If Ken Beck were a poet, hed be William Carlos Williams. His language, like Williamss, enjoys a surface simplicity bulbous, spoiled tomatoes, a blue plastic toy shovel, a fire hydrant placed in the service of mystery and grandeur. The tomatoes look so visceral, they could be your own appendix on the verge of rupture; the toy shovel, towering and bright, reads like a steeple or a flag on the moon; the fire hydrant with its stunted arms and its helmet-like upper portion suggests a human body. Becks achievement, his near-religious celebration of the surface and the light and the texture of the most quotidian objects, is as immense as it is delightful. The Piano Factory gallery is open weekends from 1 to 4 p.m., or by appointment; call (617) 267-9060.

Rose Art Museum curator Rafaela Platow gives a free gallery talk on "Painting4" at the Rose Art Museum, Saturday, November 15 at 2 p.m.; call (781) 736-3434.

Illuminated
Brother Thomas at the Pucker
BY JEFFREY GANTZ

"Brother Thomas: Creator of Luminaries"
At the Pucker
Gallery in Boston through October 14.

"The Creator of Luminaries is usually understood as the Creator of heavenly bodies the moon and the sun," Bernie and Sue Pucker write in the introduction to the (typically handsome) catalogue for their latest show of pottery by Brother Thomas Bezanson, and they continue, "Each work [of his] illuminates our eyes, heart and spirit. The luminescent copper red, the ice-crackle glaze over sang de buf, the glistening iron blue, the profound honan tenmoku, the ćthereal dark celadon floating in a light celadon heaven are all among his luminaries."

Celestial imagery comes easily to those who write about Brother Thomas when I first saw his work, in 1999, I described him as a white-hole artist from whom the universe streams forth and his pieces as microcosms of the galaxies of our universe. Pottery might seem the most grounded of art forms, but this is porcelain by Plato, the product of 50 years of ceramic philosophy and exploration. Born in Nova Scotia in 1929, Thomas Bezanson spent 25 years as a Benedictine monk at the Weston Priory in Vermont. Since 1985, he has been artist-in-residence in the community of the Benedictine Sisters at Mount Saint Benedict in Erie, Pennsylvania.

From the 30-minute video "Gifts from the Fire" which the gallery will be happy to play for you if its not running when you arrive you can get an idea of the complexity of the potting process, from the kneading of the clay to the moment when you hand over control of the result to the kiln. Whats striking about Brother Thomass 15th show at the Pucker is the multiplicity of form and color. Thomass shapes can look unnatural; certainly hes not trying to replicate nature. His vases in particular seem experiments in abstract geometry, from the vaguely hourglass-like (TH1838-TH1839) through the series of tall vases with flat lips (TH1790-1807) to wide-bodied (TH1739-1743) and flat forms (TH1735-1737). This is art that doesnt confirm your preconceptions but rather, like Alices White Rabbit, challenges you to follow it. Perhaps each shape no two seem alike has its ideal viewer. In any case, its an experience to select an unfamiliar and perhaps uncongenial form and spend five minutes wrestling with its angel.

Thomass galaxy of glazes also continues to expand. New here is "nightsky," as midnight-deep as Novalis or Nietzsche. In one large ovoid cut-rim vase (TH1761), its dizzy with hints of stardust; in two other large vases (TH1739 and TH1749), its as pure as the preBig Bang universe. Honan tenmoku is a traditional glaze, but on the large vase TH1738 the copper-colored blood spreads over the black like an avant-garde Greek red-figure design. The jar-like form looks both classic and novel, and like some of the other large pieces in the show, this one has been set on a rotating stand so that you can turn it and see all around. On another large tenmoku vase (TH1746), the copper has levitated toward the top, and its spattered with metallic accents. Still other tenmoku pieces (TH1753 and TH1800) have vapor trails of crystalline rutile, and where the black and the ocher meet theres a trace of verdigris border. TH1760 is an ovoid cut-rim black vase on which the rutile drips down from the cut rim like a feather or a splash of very white coffee.

Kairagi is a scaly-white glaze that can at first seem uninviting. As you enter the Pucker, youll see at once on your left an ovoid cut-rim kairagi vase (TH1850), and if you look at it carefully youll find underneath a sang de buf ground that turns the cracked-ice white into something more like cherry blossoms. This piece is flanked by two classic copper-red vases that bring out its color just one example of the intelligent deployment of the art here (TH1738, on the other hand, needs lots of space and gets it). You could even say that individuality and interaction is a theme of the show. The chrysanthemum tall vase TH1790 and the blue-chrysanthemum vase TH1842 have complex glaze patterns that will repay careful scrutiny (and dont forget to look under the rim) but also complex relationships with their fellow pieces. Just like celestial luminaries and their human counterparts.

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"In the Mirror of Maya Deren"
a documentary film by director Martina Kudlacek
Austria/Switzerland/Germany | 2002 | 104 mins | Color and B&W | 1.33:1 | In English 


 
When Anthology Film Archives director, filmmaker Jonas Mekas, advertised for a volunteer to catalog the films of Maya Deren, director Martina Kudlacek applied and gained a rich documentary subject.  Those unfamiliar with Deren's work will have an eye-opening education while those familiar will get to know the passionate nature of a vibrant woman "In the Mirror of Maya Deren."

Kudlacek begins her film with Mekas holding film cans marked Deren, declaring them the 'holy grail of cinema - we don't know what's inside,' before beginning a journey that details Deren's Russian Jewish roots, influences, lovers, colleagues, travels, and work.  Substantial clips of Deren's experimental shorts are put into context by collaborators and Deren's own narration, taken from wire recordings (the precursor to magnetic tape) of her lectures.  Although Deren appeared in many of her films, they were silent for the most part, and so Deren's broad New Yawkese is a surprise coming from the petite, exotic immigrant.

Second husband Alexander Hammid, the codirector of Maya's most famous work "Meshes in the Afternoon," reflects on her exotic beauty while perusing his stunning black and white photographs of her.  Friend and assistant Miriam Arsham fills us in on Deren's background from birth. Experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage ("Dog Star Man") talks about her influence as he prepares a filmic tribute to her.  Choreographer Katherine Dunham, whom Deren worked for, describes her sensuality and need for movement while dancer Rita Christiani speaks of Deren's perfect motivational direction for her moves in "Ritual in Transfigured Time."

Poetry, dance, the sea, dreams, ritual and time are continuing themes in Deren's work.  1944's "At Land" is shot by the seaside, Maya (the name, adopted by Eleanora Derenkovskaya, means water) acting as sea creature exploring the shore.  She revisits the ocean in her 1946 film as well as in her explorations of Haitian Vodoun made possible by the first Guggenheim grant give to a filmmaker.  Maya's love of mirrors are featured in another clip, a dreamlike meditation with dual Derens which recalls both David Lynch's "Blue Velvet" and "Mulholland Drive."  Tai Chi expert Chao-li Chin ("Big Trouble in Little China") explains how Maya danced with her camera while following his movements in "Meditation on Violence" and we see that relationship repeated between subject and director/camera operator (Deren worked with a 16mm Bolex) in her amazing footage of a Haitian in Vodoun possession.

In her later years, Deren married Japanese composer Teiji Ito, eighteen years her junior.  His music became a vibrant part of her work as her interests became ingrained in his (he died in Haiti in 1982).  Deren's death of a brain hemorrhage at the age of 44 has been attributed to everything from her Dr. Feelgood shots to disappoint with the reception of her last film ("The Very Eye of Night") to poverty and starvation.

Kudlacek's film should be required viewing for any student of film. In addition to celebrating Deren, her love of the physical medium shines throughout her documentary with frequent cutaways to film strips and stacked reels.  'It's tougher to be a filmmaker than a painter,' Deren states - maybe her passion for her work wore her out.

'Mystic River' writers Helgeland and Lehane talk adaptation       Rio Bravo by Mark Holcomb, The Village Voice,
 
Hollywood lore is brimming with anguished accounts of botched literary adaptations: for-hire hacks with little understanding of the source material, megalomaniac directors banning screenwriters (let alone the lowly novelists who inspired them) from sets. And then there's Mystic River (currently in theaters). To hear novelist Dennis Lehane and screenwriter Brian Helgeland tell it, few page-to-screen transitions have been as accommodating to the writers involved than Clint Eastwood's critically gilded version of Lehane's bestselling 2001 thriller. "I stayed away from the set a lot," Lehane says of the film's shoot last year in South Boston, "which was really strange, because they were wonderful about bringing me on. Someone took me aside at one point and said, 'We were kind of hoping to have you on the set a little more.' And I thought, 'How many writers have heard that?' "

More ironic is that Lehane wasn't looking to have his work adapted in the first placenor was he in the market to do the adapting. "I turned in 400 manuscript pages [on Mystic River]," he says. "I couldn't have written 402, I couldn't have written 401. So one of the big things with Clint was that I wouldn't write it. I wouldn't sign the contract until we'd agreed on a screenwriter. We both came back to Brian." Why Helgeland? "I'll bet he's tired of hearing this," Lehane says, "but it's L.A. Confidential. It's one of the great unadaptables." The screenwriter's 1997 adaptation of that James Ellroy novel (coscripted with director Curtis Hanson) "raised a lot of eyebrows among authors," Lehane says admiringly.

Helgeland, who tackled Michael Connelly's Blood Work for Eastwood last year, is as modest about his accomplishments as he is pragmatic in his approach to adapting. "The trick is to get as much from the book in there as possible," he says. "But if you're counting on people to have read the book to understand the movie, you're dead." Indeed, his Mystic River hews so closely to Lehane's story that it may be difficult for those familiar with the book to pinpoint what was left out. Is Helgeland anxious that the novel's crucial verbal plot twist, fully intact in the film, is too obvious on celluloid? "I was a little worried that it was going to come out of left field, you know, 'Here's the deus ex machina you asked for.' But with those things you just hope it works."

If the critical hosannas are any indication, Mystic River works just fine. Like all savvy writers, Lehane is hedging his bets. "I really think of the book and movie as two different beasts," he says. "If it captures the spirit of my book, then I'm very happy." For now, the two scribes seem content to ride the Mystic crest. The ever wary Lehane has even decided to bask in the spotlight a little. "Rolling Stone did this big review, and one of my buddies came over and said, 'How you feeling today?' And they're really used to me going, 'I don't give a shit.' And I said, 'I feel like, "Kiss my ass. I wrote Mystic-fuckin'-River." ' He was like, 'Finally!' "

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With an ambitious crime thriller, Clint Eastwood opens NYFF and returns to top form
"Play Mystic For Me" Review by J. Hoberman
The Village Voice October 1 - 7, 2003

Good hair, bad cops: Sean Penn shoulders the acting burden in Mystic River.
(photo: FSLC)
 

lint Eastwood's Mystic River, which opens the New York Film Festival Friday night and goes into theatrical release next Wednesday, is an urban crime thriller of considerable gravitas. Working from Brian Helgeland's smooth adaptation of the hefty Dennis Lehane bestseller, Eastwood's 24th directorial feature is his most ambitious in a decade.

Pursuing the interlocking destinies of three boyhood friendsJimmy the ex-con gangster (Sean Penn), Sean the cop (Kevin Bacon), and Dave the Darkbum (Tim Robbins)through the tribalized precincts of white working-class Boston, Mystic River showcases Eastwood as behind-the-camera auteur rather than on-screen icon. Somber music, composed by the director himself, underscores the movie's requisite dark and stormy nights. As befits a procedural, Mystic River has a deliberate, methodical pace; exposition is frequent, milieu is duly noted, and the past is always present.

History is the subject, horror is repeated: A prologue shows the 10-year-old Dave abducted one Saturday afternoon by fake cops (and subsequently abused) as little Jimmy and Sean look on in fearful amazement. Thirty-odd years later, Jimmy's teenage daughter turns up dead, and Dave, one of the last people to see her alive, comes home fucked-up, bloody, and babbling to his wife, Celeste (Marcia Gay Harden). As homicide detective Sean returns to the old neighborhood to take the case, and crazed Jimmy puts his scariest boyos on it, the movie features rival investigations, with cops versus thugs; as distraught Celeste is a cousin to Jimmy's ice-queen consort Annabeth (Laura Linney), the narrative further pits wives against their husbands.

Although a typically cost-conscious Eastwood production, Mystic River is a movie of big perfs. Scary and volatile, Penn, who shoulders the burden of "acting" (or is it reacting?), isn't this time entirely eclipsed by his hair. His trademark intensity, however, plays oddly against the rest of the cast's cautious withholding. There's no particular buildup to Jimmy's fury. It's inevitable he'll take the law into his own handslike in many of Eastwood's movies. Mystic River critiques the American Zen of lone-wolf, vigilante justice.

Robbins, by contrast, is a more quietly terrifying creature, even when he's not sitting in the dark watching a vampire flick on TV. Pallid, sour, and haunted, he gives a powerfully physical performancejaw poked out and face somehow folded back on itself, mumbling his lines through a thick Boston accent. Bacon has the closest to an Eastwood role, albeit one largely devoid of interest, with Laurence Fishburne as his even more nominal partner.

Parallelisms may be Eastwood's favorite structuring device. The tormented Celeste is doubled by the stoical Annabeth, as Sean's guilty loyalty to Dave is reflected by Jimmy's guilt-free rage. (Even Sean's silent wife is mirrored by a mute witness to the crime.) But these emotional allegiances begin to cancel themselves out as the noose tightens around the suspect's neck. As in Unforgiven, Eastwood contrives to foreground the question of violence and make it specific as well as inevitable. Darker in its way than even Unforgiven, Mystic River actually ends with a festive patriotic parade casting a horrifying shadow of criminality on the entire procedure.

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 John Currin Selects:
Exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
through January 4 , 2004

By William Stover

Paintings such as Fishermen, (2002) reveal John Currin's adept handling of paint and his synthesis of historical styles.

It has been said that the longer you look at a John Currin painting, the less you know what to make of it. Unabashedly in love with the high culture painting tradition of Europe, Currin (American, born in 1962) fuses influences from such old masters as Lucas Cranach and Gustave Courbet, the Rococo idylls of François Boucher and Jean-Honoré Fragonard with girlie pho-tos from 1960s mens magazines and wholesome American advertising images into paintings that spring forth from the artists imagination.

When looking at Currins paintings, the viewer immediately recognizes the historical tradition from which the work emanates yet realizes it is quite unlike other painting in the figurative tradition. Currin combines his knowledge of the technique of the old masters with intentional ambiguity, creating paintings that confirm the value of the imagination in art. Currin was given carte blanche to train his keen eye on the MFAs distinguished collections of European and American paintings those on view as well as works from the deepest recesses of storage.

The small painting Blood of the Redeemer, by Bartolomeo Passarotti (15291592), measures only 13 ˝ inches high by 6 inches wide. It is one of the MFA paintings John Currin selected for this exhibition.

The diverse group of works he assembled brings to light questions and issues the artist wrestles with daily and reveals his own anxieties as a painter within a society that does not, Currin believes, value painting. John Currin Selects includes approximately forty paintings that range from William Rimmers mythological fantasy Evening (The Fall of Day) to the incisive, psychological portrait of poet Luis de Góngora y Argote by Diego Velázquez. The modern, white spaces of the Foster Gallery, combined with Currins insightful placement of paintings, allows Museum visi-tors to view familiar works in a new lightproviding a glimpse into the mind of one of todays most intriguing artists.

William Stover is assistant curator, Contemporary Art.

 

Of Related Interest:

Click here to view a list of related lectures and events.

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'Surrealism: Desire Unbound'  at the Tate Modern

A Review by Borin Van Loon

 

Not a 'blockbuster' exhibition, if such a thing exists, and probably all the better for it. As one of the most important, turbulent and, it must be admitted, inherently flawed movements in art, poetry and revolutionary politics of the last century, Surrealism explores and uncovers that which is 'above the real', a dimension of meaning which transcends bourgeois 'common sense'. Given their positioning in history (born out of the unbridled nihilism of Dada, itself a product of the horrors of the Great War) the founding fathers of Surrealism (and it was mainly men at the start: women were seen as muses for the males) didn't have much time for that dominant and dreaded class dubbed by Marx 'the bourgeoisie'. Uneasy off-and-on relations with the official Communist Party throughout the Stalinist era didn't really help; it's clear that the hard left in France couldn't cope with these semi-anarchic, strange young men and their passionate, disturbing attitudes towards the stifling mediocrity of the European middle class.

At the centre of Surrealism's agenda was the pursuit and examination of desire. The word 'desire', as it appears in the title of this exhibition, applies to all areas of human activity which are suppressed by bourgeois values. Adopting the spirit and vocabulary of the Russian Revolution and Freudian psychoanalysis (two unlikely bedfellows) led the early practitioners to experiment with pure psycic automatism, often to the exclusion of other forms of expression. These factors conspired to destabilise a movement which was remarkably long-lived, eventually being shattered only by the invasion of France by the Nazis. As a coherent movement Surrealism found a figurehead (and he did have a remarkably large, leonine head) in Andre Breton. Breton himself embodied a revolutionary spirit with a questionable attitude towards women and extreme homophobia. During the 'Discussions on Sexuality' which were transcribed in the thirties and published in full only recently, Breton threatened to terminate discussions which wandered into same-sex practices on several occasions. Given the free-ranging and openly frank intentions of these group discussions, his impulses mark him out against many of the more liberal participants. Needless to say, any women present remained largely silent or were busy acting as secretary.

Many of the prejudices and contradictions inherent in society as a whole were embodied by the Surrealists. Successive expulsions from the group were often followed by tacit reacceptance into the fold, in typical French counter-cultural mode (see also: Situationists whose leader Guy Debord eventually expelled everyone from the inner core except himself). The group were destined to drag their remnants back together after the war and find Breton at the centre of a new generation of followers in Paris, though with diminished influence. Jean-Paul Sartre had a very existential and jaundiced view of Surrealism, but I wonder what Simone de Beauvoir would have had to say about the bundle of Maoist contradictions which was Sartre.

Slavish adherence to automatism, even though it had contributed notable work such as the prose-poem 'Magnetic Fields' by Breton and Paul Eluard and the automatic drawings and paintings of Andre Masson, led to freer expressions. Salvador Dali, whose extreme posturing shocked even the Surrealists, invented the Paranoic-Critical Method of capturing dreams and nightmares on minutely detailed canvasses. The dazzling vision and technique of these paintings from the thirties, as well as his 'symbolically-functioning objects' and poems comprise major works of the movement.

The Tate Modern offers us all the usual suspects from its own collections and many rarities from around the world. Magritte is here only sparingly ('The Lovers' 1928), some major Ernsts ('The Robing of the Bride' 1940), fine sculptures by Giacometti ('Woman With Her Throat Cut' 1932, shown left) , great photography by Man Ray and Lee Miller ('Anatomies' 1929), and good selections from the man-child paintings of Miro. Meret Oppenheims 'Object', which set American society alight when it was first shown at the Museum of Modern Art, demonstrates the characteristic paradox of object and material: a cup and saucer covered in fur. Man Ray's flat-iron which has a row of nails welded down the centre of its pressing surface, 'Gift', embodies the same feeling of unease: an object which destroys that which it is intended to improve. On the ironing theme, Marcel Duchamp proposed his own version of the surrealist object: the Old Master painting which is used as an ironing board.

An extensive selection of documents, photographs and letters lies at the heart of this exhibition. Not spectacular in itself, this gallery contains much of the restless spirit of Surrealism. The star of the show for me was the painting 'Gradiva' by Andre Masson (shown above). Based on its own borrowed myths and references it contains - quite literally - volcanic sexuality and a part human, part stonework female figure bisected by a joint of meat (shades of Stanley Spencer here), with a conch shell instead of genitalia.

In the words of the Comte de Lautremont: it's as beautiful as the chance meeting on a dissecting table of an umbrella and a sewing machine. At its best, it quite takes the breath away. We all know that Surrealism continues to be the currency of much of today's advertising. One only has to look at some of the slightly repellant television advertisments on our screens (BBC internet: walking fingers with little human heads; a monstrous computer-generated baby which rampages through a hospital like Ridley Scott's alien: some make of car or other) to see its dominance. Meanwhile it reverberates in the stand-up comedy of Eddie Izzard and Emo Philips and the film-making of David Lynch, David Cronenberg and Jan Svankmajer. It informs comic strips (modesty forbids...) and situation comedy ('Fast Show', 'Big Train', 'Smack the Pony'). "It's quite surreal" has become a commonplace amongst people who have no idea what surrealism is; quite often the situation so described isn't really surreal at all (see also 'Kafkaesque').

Finally, one of my favourite artists, Dorothea Tanning, soul-mate of Max Ernst and a superb painter to boot, leaves me with the most memorable of images. 'Birthday' (1942, shown left) is a full length selfportrait of the artist at the age of thirty, bare breasted and standing in front of an endless succession of open doors. At her feet a grotesque succubus crawls. In the specialist shop afterwards I spend 45 minutes and loadsamoney on my choices. Tanning's autobiography, a book of automatic texts (including 'Les Champs Magnetique') and Michel Foucault on that most equivocal Magritte work: 'Ceci n'est pas une Pipe'. A crystal paperweight with the enlarged eye of Lee Miller at its heart and a few postcards and I am done. Disappointingly no t-shirts (I didn't really want one of the extortionate 'TATE' ones with the lettering composed of three dimensional Dalinian ants). But, all in all, an exhilarating show.

As I walk into the huge halls of the Tate's main exhibition area, I'm drawn by a crowd huddled into one of the mini-cinema areas where once the full-frontal film of a naked artist disporting himself was shown. There, transfixed, visitors stare at the projected animations of Jan Svankmajer. 'Dimensions of Dialogue' explores two clay-sculpted heads on a table top as they stare with glass eyes at each other in an unnerving manner and fence with a variety of objects which issue from their mouths. One of the finest pieces of film making in the history of cinema.

--Borin Van Loon, January 2002

The Surrealism exhibition ran from 20 September 2001 to 1 January 2002 at the Tate Modern in London. Our Chairman Borin Van Loon went along and sent us this review.

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LOST CLASSIC
BY CELIA WREN

Leonora Carrington's 'The Hearing Trumpet'
Geriatric Goddess



f C.S. Lewis had been a Woman Who Runs With the Wolves, his fiction might have resembled The Hearing Trumpet, the fantasy novel by surrealist painter Leonora Carrington. Published in English in 1976, The Hearing Trumpet (recently reprinted by Exact Change Press) boasts the kind of whimsically eclectic stage dressing that decks The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and Carrington's senior-citizen heroines plunge from reality to a magical world as suddenly as Lucy and her siblings do in Lewis's Narnia series. But while Lewis roped his fantasy series to Christianity, Carrington tethered The Hearing Trumpet to a more eccentric mythology smelted from dream imagery, Celtic legend, alchemical literature, surrealist rebellion, and goddess lore. By her novel's end, six old ladies have helped defeat an Angry Father God, delivering the worldnewly in the grips of a second Ice Ageto a redemptive female spirit incarnated as a swarm of bumblebees.

Buoying the novel up against such weighty feminist themes, fortunately, is its quirky humor, which takes its tone from Marian Leatherby, the irrepressible 92-year-old narrator. So spunky and opinionated she could be a mascot for the Gray Panthers, Marian isno kiddingone of literature's most endearing and colorful characters, all the more remarkable for belonging to a demographic category novelists usually slight. She is a gregarious, nearly deaf, toothless grandmother who is a fanatical cat lover and a vegetarian"I think it is wrong to deprive animals of their life when they are so difficult to chew anyway," she remarks. She's no youth-culture victim either: "I do have a short gray beard which conventional people would find repulsive," she observes in the opening pages. "Personally I find it rather gallant."

But Marian's son, a British diplomat in an unnamed South American country, is not so enamored of his mother, whom he packs off to a local nursing home. This curious place, where residents live in oddly shaped bungalowsone like a cuckoo clock, others like a birthday cake or a toadstoolturns out to be a nest of supernatural intrigue. After one elderly occupant dies from poisoned chocolate fudge, Marian leads a hunger strike against the home's priggish administrators, Dr. and Mrs. Gambit. In doing so, she unwittingly precipitates a cataclysm that involves werewolves, an atom-powered ark, a uranium mine, an aphrodisiac discovered near the mummy of Mary Magdalene, and the Holy Grail.

At the core of the adventure is the story of an evil 18th-century abbess who is eventually canonized, despite having infested her convent with orgies and black magic. "She must have been a most remarkable woman," Marian optimistically concludes after reading the saint's secret history. Carrington's gleeful willingness to take swipes at the church is also evident in her portrait of the Gambits, who practice a kind of pretentious Christian gymnastics (a parody, perhaps, of the philosophy espoused by G.I. Gurdjieff, which Carrington encountered in the '50s).

The Hearing Trumpet's blasphemous strains are, of course, classic surrealist shock tactics, but they also reflect Carrington's personal rebellion. Born in 1917 into a wealthy British Catholic family, she was repeatedly thrown out of convent schools, and when older she scandalized her family by opting to study art. In London in 1937 she met one of the surrealist movement's founding members, the painter and sculptor Max Ernst, who left his wife for her. Living with Ernst in France, Carrington began crafting stories and spooky paintings like her 1939 Portrait of Max Ernst, which poses a man with a furry fish's body in an eerie arctic landscape.

In 1940 the German Ernst was interned by the French as an enemy alien, and Carrington had a nervous breakdown. After fleeing France, she turned up at the British Embassy in Madrid, threatening and delusional, and was committed to an insane asylum. Eventually, her family, intending to hospitalize her further, attempted to return her to England, but en route Carrington escaped from her escort. She sought refuge in Lisbon with a Mexican diplomat acquaintance, who married her as a way to help her travel to New York. In subsequent years she continued to write and paint, in New Yorka magnet for émigré surrealistsand in Mexico, where she lives now.

During her first decades in the Americas, Carrington wrote The Hearing Trumpet, but the manuscript was lost, and she had to re-create it from a rough draft that turned up in 1973. The book was published to favorable notice; Luis Buńuel marveled, "Reading The Hearing Trumpet liberates us from the miserable reality of our days."

The novel's audaciously bizarre story line has often earned it comparison to Alice in Wonderland, but the analogy is, perhaps, too easy. Carrington's tale lacks the ruthlessly tight weave, and the underlying puzzle logic, of Carroll's. Its vision is more like a collage, that medium admired by the surrealists. Encountering references over the course of two or three pages, for example, to Lapland, nuclear science, and an embalmed cuckoo, one thinks of the surrealist aesthetic of jarring juxtapositionsa style summed up in Comte de Lautréamont's simile, seized upon by surrealist kingpin André Breton: "Beautiful as the unexpected meeting, on a dissection table, of a sewing machine and an umbrella."

At the same time, the images in The Hearing Trumpet are more psychological than those in Alice. When Marian Leatherby plunges down the equivalent of a rabbit hole, she meets a shamanic version of herselfa witch who scoffs at the question "Which of us is really me?" The scene practically invites readers to be armchair shrinks: Analyze the novel through a biographical lens, after all, and the Gambits' nursing home appears to be Carrington's therapeutically comic rewriting of her Spanish hospital stay.

The real common denominator between Alice and The Hearing Trumpet is the unflappability of the two heroines. The intrepid Marian views old age, levitating abbesses, and other alarming occurrences with the calm self-confidence Alice directs at the Mad Hatter and Cheshire Cat. And both heroines scrutinize the marvelous with the same hilariously deadpan logic. "We are thinking of teaching them to draw a sledge," Marian reports of a werewolf litter born into the new Ice Age.

Carrington's zany novel challenges us to rethink stereotypes about old age, and old women in particular. Marian's elderly female pals are as resourceful as a Bruce Willis hero in a tight spotfor example, Carmella, a cigar-smoking octogenarian who likes to discuss machine guns, pulls off a blackmailing scheme. In fact, it is tempting to read the book as a sort of belated protest against the male surrealists' idealization of fragile young women. As Whitney Chadwick points out in Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement, André Breton & Co. cast women, and particularly naive, mentally unstable women, as museshaunting, enigmatic creatures who maintained a direct line to the Irrational. This patronizing vision had little room for women who were strong and worldly-wise, or who aimed to be artists in their own right, instead of simply channeling inspiration to men.

Chadwick reports that, when asked her opinion of the surrealists' Woman-as-Muse mythology, Leonora Carrington answered, succinctly: "Bullshit." The Hearing Trumpet elaborates with comic genius on this response, conjuring up a world of geriatric heroines spirited enough to explode the patriarchyteeth or no teeth.


Celia Wren is the managing editor of the magazine American Theatre.

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Pain, poetry and death
* Her Husband: Hughes and Plath -- A Marriage; Diane Middlebrook; Viking: 362 pp., $25.95
By Susie Linfield,  a contributing writer to Book Review, is acting director of the Cultural Reporting and Criticism program at New York University.

Like a grotesquely bloody car crash that replays itself over and again, the story of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes continues to fascinate us four decades after her death. Plath and Hughes' exultant sexual passion and artistic drive; his betrayals; her suicide; the motherless childrenWho can look away?

Yet it is not only lurid attraction, or schadenfreude, or some inchoate sense of relief (no matter how bad things get, for most of us they haven't gotten quite that bad) that draws us to this tale. The catastrophic marriage of Hughes and Plath a catastrophe that, not coincidentally, produced great art also raises fundamental questions that we need to ask and can never answer: about how love grows and why it dies; about the relationship between madness and creativity; about the power of men and the power of women; about the price of staying in a marriage, and of leaving it; about depression and despair, and whether either love or art can heal them. As literary critic Jacqueline Rose wrote, thinking about Plath means thinking about "some of the most difficult points of contestation in our contemporary cultural and political life She writes at the point of tension pleasure/danger, your fault/my fault, high/low culture without resolution."

Not surprising, then, that a widely variegated literature has grown up around Plath and Hughes, centering sometimes on their lives and sometimes on their work but almost always, by necessity, considering the relation between the two. At the lowest end of the spectrum is the shamelessly voyeuristic novel "Sylvia and Ted" by Emma Tennant, who has dined off her affair with Hughes far too long. But there are works of subtle intelligence too, such as Rose's "The Haunting of Sylvia Plath" and Erica Wagner's "Ariel's Gift." Diane Middlebrook's "Her Husband," a provocative and compelling attempt to understand the marriage of these poets by looking at their work, places itself firmly in this best tradition. It is a mark of Middlebrook's skill as a writer and her insight as a thinker that her book is a pleasure to read though her subject is tragic.

Middlebrook never shies away from the emotional torment at the heart of this tale, but she knows that the stakes are not those of a soap opera. "How mock-heroic is the war between the sexes," she writes. "It's a real war, though, which is why the marriage of Hughes and Plath is of enduring interest." The author of an acclaimed biography of Anne Sexton, Middlebrook places the Hughes-Plath marriage, and the work it produced, within "a thick cable of twentieth-century texts" by Yeats, Joyce, Eliot and Lawrence: "Each of these great modernists attempted to wrest ordinary marriage into a myth." In the years 1956 to 1962, Middlebrook claims, Hughes and Plath created "one of the most mutually productive literary marriages of the twentieth century" albeit one of the briefest and most disastrous.

Because so much bad work has been done on Hughes and Plath, Middlebrook's approach is impressive, first, for what it rejects. She does not adhere to the reductive feminist line that Plath, who killed herself at age 30 in 1963, was a helpless victim of Hughes' infidelities in particular or patriarchal oppression in general. But she rejects in equal measure the idea that Plath was simply a chronic depressive whose life and poetry address no reality larger than her own.

Middlebrook's vision is more complex; take, for instance, her discussion of the Hughes-Plath honeymoon (a ritual, she notes, that "gives newlyweds plenty of opportunity to discover the ways they are going to make each other unhappy"). Hughes brought along his Shakespeare, Plath "The Joy of Cooking."

At this point many a reader will groan, and there is no doubt that the conflict between housework and intellectual work (and between wife-muse, mother-artist, etc.) is very much a part of Plath's story. But not the whole story. Middlebrook writes, "Nothing illuminates Plath as a figure of her historical moment better than do these entries [in her journal] on her womanly competence, written as if under the aegis of the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. But Plath also viewed cooking as a practice that advanced her aim of developing a writing style grounded in womanly experience She spent several hours one day avoiding the philosophy of John Locke by studying [Irma Rombauer's] 'The Joy of Cooking,' 'reading it like a rare novel.' Plath's journal entry provides some context for understanding the hidden pathway of association that glides from Locke to Rombauer. She is groping for a specifically female version of moral philosophy."

The thorniest question in evaluating Hughes and Plath is the relationship between the poetry they made and the lives they lived. Here too Middlebrook is admirably graceful in her approach, weaving together and where necessary separating the two realms. Plath's poetry is unabashedly personal; one of its great glories is its transformation of everyday experience into art. (Think, for instance, of the opening lines of "Cut": "What a thrill / My thumb instead of an onion.") But the key word here is "transformation": Like all artists, Plath took experience and made it into something else. And this something else is to be found, too, in her voluminous letters and journals; these were not, Middlebrook reminds us, raw confessions but, rather, artful constructs through which Plath perfected the authorial voice she called the "diary I."

With Hughes the art-life problem is in some ways simpler, others not. He adamantly rejected directly autobiographical poetry, and he loathed biographers. (The suicide of the woman for whom he left Plath, and her murder of their young daughter, could only have reinforced what may have been an already existing proclivity toward privacy.) Yet he too produced, and saved, literally tons of letters and other personal papers that are now archived (and on which Middlebrook draws).

More important, near the end of his life Hughes published "Birthday Letters," a volume of 88 poems about his relationship with Plath and her death; its desolate, unveiled intimacy astonished lay readers and critics alike. Even in these poems, though, as Middlebrook rightly warns, "all details are metaphorical even when they are factual He is not remembering her words; he has been prompted by her words to enter into dialogue with that self she made in language." Hughes' "letters," then, are not addressed to a dead woman but rather to "the vivid persona," still very much alive, that Plath created in her poems.

And what of the actual marriage, the focus of Middlebrook's book? Hughes and Plath shared a passionate love. But in Middlebrook's view, the marriage's raison d'ętre whether consciously articulated or not wasn't love or sex or children. It was work; that is, Hughes and Plath's major, mutual aim was to make themselves into poets, and they needed each other to do so. "And we / Only did what poetry told us to do," Hughes wrote in "Birthday Letters." One can view this as romantic self-exculpation, but Middlebrook views it as true.

Seen in this light, the partnership was a fertile undertaking, and far more successful than either spouse could have hoped. Especially in their early years, Plath and Hughes lived and worked in close quarters and, perhaps because they were poor, sometimes wrote their poems back-to-back on the same sheet of paper. They thought of themselves symbiotically too; even after Plath's death, Hughes claimed they shared "one single mind." Through textual analysis, Middlebrook shows the literary results of this collaboration shows, that is, the way the couple's poems called up, spoke to, challenged and answered one another. As the marriage shattered, this artistic conversation continued, though it took on darker meanings: "They were playing," Middlebrook writes, "an obsessive game of tag with each other's images."

Middlebrook doesn't view Plath's suicide as inevitable, and she seems impatient with Hughes' insistence on doom-laden destiny in "Birthday Letters." But she does view the end of the couple's creative collusion as unsurprising and strongly implies that it had to mean the end of the marriage as well. By the spring of 1962, Middlebrook writes, Hughes' "imagination had abandoned Plath, just as her imagination was deserting Hughes He and Plath had reached, simultaneously, the end of their apprenticeships as poets. In actual life their romance had ended."

Still, simultaneity is not equality, and the cost for Plath was overwhelming pain though perhaps a necessary pain. In Middlebrook's view, the psychological task Plath had to face to become an adult and an artist "divesting herself of an idealization of a fatherly male" was set in motion by Hughes' infidelity and desertion. The process was searing, but it worked; discussing one of Plath's harshest poems, written as the marriage dissolved, Middlebrook observes: "Her art had begun moving out from under Hughes's influence 'The Rabbit Catcher' is an elegy for everything that had to be outgrown in her femininity to acquire such clarity, such mastery within the medium of the distinctive poetic method and subject matter that would make her name."

Middlebrook never addresses, and rightly so, the absurd question of whether such poems were "worth" such pain, but she does point to the inescapably horrible irony of Plath's life: As her psyche disintegrated, she bloomed as a poet. Plath's masterpiece, "Ariel," written largely in the months before her suicide, is the record of her breakage and her triumph, which is why it can simultaneously devastate and thrill; she had found, finally, what Middlebrook calls "a creative pathway into the negative emotions that stirred her eloquence." Plath's tragedy wasn't her anguish per se but her inability to live through it; she died giving birth to herself.

The Hughes-Plath marriage continued, for each partner, until death did them part. Middlebrook makes a convincing case as does "Birthday Letters" that Plath's suicide bound Hughes to her for the rest of his life: "Plath's suicide had sunk into his imagination," Middlebrook writes. "The main subject of his art had now been consolidated by Plath's angry departure for the underworld." Indeed, "Birthday Letters" and a simultaneous, limited-issue book by Hughes called "Howls and Whispers" cause Middlebrook to reevaluate his oeuvre. A major theme, she now writes, is "how marriages fail, or how men fail in marriage."

There is much to argue with in "Her Husband," and Middlebrook deserves readers who will. Her interpretation of a key Hughes poem, "The Offers," in which Plath hauntingly beseeches Hughes not to fail her, is wildly optimistic: Where Middlebrook finds renewal and reunion, I see the finality of utter loss. More generally, many readers will bristle at the claim that a marriage that ended in infidelity, separation and suicide was a success. But one needn't agree with all of Middlebrook's arguments. The journey that she takes us on exhilarates, even as it also makes us tremble.

*

From
Her Husband

A letter Hughes wrote to his sister-in-law complains that visitors have walked off with "everything that had her or my signature, her manuscripts, towels, sheets, tools whenever I wasn't actually on watch, something was pinched." In 1967, sending Gerald [his older brother] a limited edition of a book of poems, Hughes cautioned him to keep it in a safe place, a lesson he says he learned the hard way by watching personal copies of his first editions disappear on "centipede legs."

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''Ambreen Butt: I Must Utter What Comes to My Lips''

Worcester Art Museum, 55 Salisbury St., Worcester, through May 11.
508-799-4406 or www.worcesterart.org.

A woman of many worlds

In art, Ambreen Butt grapples with the clash of Western, Islamic values

By Cate McQuaid, Globe Correspondent, 4/11/2003

WORCESTER -- The title of Ambreen Butt's solo show at the Worcester Art Museum speaks not only of her paintings, but of the 33-year-old artist herself. It is called ''I Must Utter What Comes to My Lips.'' The phrase, which is also the title of her most recent series of paintings, comes from a work by the 18th-century Sufi poet Bulleh Shah. Butt cites these lines:

 

Speaking the truth creates chaos.

Telling a lie saves one scarce.

I am afraid of both these;

Afraid I am both here and there.

I must utter what comes to my lips.

The Pakistani-born Butt is petite and soft-spoken, and when she speaks, she seems to be seeking the truth. She knows this can be a slippery thing, especially when the subjects are politics, war, and culture. Even so, she keeps trying.

''Certain things are right and wrong,'' the Cambridge-based painter says as she walks through the Worcester exhibition. ''I need to express that. It's my role as an artist and as a human being. For instance, I don't understand when bombs are dropping from the sky and at the same time food is dropping from the sky. I don't want to hear about the politics of it. I just don't understand how that could happen.''

Wrestling with such questions and contradictions is what drives her to make her art. It's an endless and daunting cycle of loss, learning, and renewal. Butt knows about being lost and found. A Muslim, she came to Boston to get her master's degree at the Massachusetts College of Art nearly a decade ago and stayed on. She hasn't returned to Pakistan in seven years. A woman of many worlds, Butt says she's not exactly at home in any of them.

''There's no place you can say that is home,'' she says. ''Really, home is within yourself.''

Butt studied Persian and Indian miniature painting at the National College of Arts in Lahore. She grounds her paintings in the precise technique, saturated colors, and storytelling tradition of Mughal miniature painting.

Her works also embrace themes of contemporary Western art. The winner of the first Institute of Contemporary Art Artist Prize in 1999, Butt makes herself the protagonist of most of her paintings, but she sees the woman in the paintings as a stand-in for everyone. She uses the self-portraits to wrestle with questions about relationships, identity, and desire. In ''I Must Utter What Comes to My Lips,'' she focuses on the clash between Western values and those of Islam, and on the responsibility every man and woman has to speak the truth.

''I think she's very brave,'' says Susan L. Stoops, curator of contemporary art at the Worcester Art Museum. ''She's asking questions, and she's willing to put them out in public when they're still questions, when the outcome isn't realized. The content is not about resolution. It encourages us to keep asking questions.

''People want the story to have an ending. Ambreen raises the bar. She doesn't make it easy. She doesn't say there's one answer to the question.''

Butt's paintings, sometimes as large as 17 by 14 inches, are bigger than traditional miniatures. That's because she wants her viewers to see the expressions on her protagonist's face. Still, the works are rooted in a centuries-old technique that was dying when Butt happened upon it in the early '90s. Lately, it's had a resurgence.

The brushes she uses, which she brought from Pakistan, are made from squirrel fur, lodged into the shaft of a pigeon feather, which in turn is installed in a bamboo stick.

''You make the paper, the brush, the pigment,'' she says. ''It's such an engaging process. You work many hours a day, many days a week, and you don't see much happen. You must be persistent and patient.''

The new exhibition features three bodies of work. The paintings in the ''Home and the World'' and the ''Farewell'' series are done on numerous layers of transparent Mylar, suggesting the many levels of the artist's identity, memories, and feelings that go into each painting. Those in the series ''I Must Utter What Comes to My Lips'' are painted on paper created for miniatures, called wasli, made of multiple layers of fine cotton and silk pulp and burnished with a conch shell.

She painted the final series over the past year at artist-in-residence programs in Michigan and North Carolina. ''I was isolated, living by myself in the middle of the woods. There were bears,'' Butt recalls.

Yet the world crashes into ''I Must Utter What Comes to My Lips.'' Missiles explode. Planes fly into skyscrapers as the protagonist walks a tightrope in the foreground. She's attacked by birds with stars on their wings, dragged up by her hair by a phoenix, blindfolded and armed with a pistol.

One painting depicts a woman on her back, being hauled up by her feet by a flock of birds. Her hair has grown tree roots, from which a tree sprouts. The woman clings to the branches as she's dragged away.

''She's a victim,'' Butt says. ''Growing the tree was a little selfish act. She's grown something for herself, the tree from her hair. Now she must let go. It's the human psyche: Today she's the victim. Tomorrow, she's the oppressor.''

For a viewer besieged by television images and radio reports of the war in Iraq, Butt's exhibition is a balm. It doesn't explain the war or accept it. But through its beauty and its unwillingness to offer pat answers, it opens a pathway for the viewer to begin to understand his or her own feelings about war, violence, and oppression.

''When the art makes you think, that's when I feel I've succeeded,'' Butt says. ''The poetry has to be there, even if it's difficult. The message has to be foiled in beauty to get it across.''

In a later e-mail, Butt described her experience working on one of the paintings, which portrays a woman who has constructed a cage from her long hair. She has captured a phoenix in it. As she painted, the artist says, she listened to a recording of poetry by Shah, sung by Pakistani folk singer Abida Parveen.

''In one verse, Bulleh Shah questions that you go outside to search and fight the devil, but have you ever looked into your own self?'' Butt explains. ''Have you ever fought with your own conscience?

''This was exactly what I was thinking when I was making that painting. The image suggests that there is no need to go out to fight the evil. If only we can control the evil within our own self, everything would fall in its right place.''

 

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Yoko Ono: Yes

Retrospective, 2001
MIT List Visual Arts Center, Cambridge

 

Many people know Yoko Ono only as John Lennon's widow, the woman who staged high-profile protests with the former Beatle during the height of the Vietnam War, and later witnessed his murder at the hands of a deranged fan.

Detractors condemned her as the dragon lady responsible for the Beatles' breakup and a social climber who garnered publicity on the back of her world-famous husband.

But few know Ono the artist, who left Japan with her parents to settle in New York, and later played a vital role in the artistic avant-garde. The survey of her work from the 1960s to the present currently on display at MIT List Visual Arts Center may change all of that.

From the start of her career, Ono was on the front lines with New York's most accomplished creative minds.

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She aligned herself with Fluxus, a late 1950s-early '60s group of artists in southern Manhattan who sought to erase the boundaries between music, poetry, visual art and performance. Trained as a classical pianist, Ono's association with the group brought her in contact with multidisciplinary artists, such as underground composer La Monte Young and video artist Nam June Paik, who also began his career as a composer.

Many of Ono's seminal pieces are in the List Center's survey of her work. These include her "instructions paintings" texts that suggest actions the viewer should take, or ideas that one could visualize and sculptures, films, drawings, as well as posters, photographs and videos that document "happenings" and "events" that she staged through her career.

Short films that she made, including "Fly," which features close-ups of a house fly walking on the recumbent body of a nude woman, and "Cut Piece," which documents a performance in which Ono sat motionless on a stage and invited audience members to cut her clothing away, are given continuous screenings in the exhibit.

Greeting visitors to the List Center is "Sky TV," a TV monitor displaying a closed-circuit live video feed of the sky above the gallery. The piece is typical Ono, circa 1966 groundbreaking, as video art was in the mid-1960s, seeking out beauty in the frequently overlooked fabric of everyday life, and presenting that beauty in an unexpected context.

Much of Ono's work has been defined as conceptual in nature, that is art made with an emphasis on the idea behind the work and a deliberate effort to de-emphasize craftsmanship. In most instances, Ono commissions others to fabricate her art objects an act that puts the artist at a physical distance from her work and divides her artistic decision making and the hand labor that goes into making it into two distinct categories.

"Yes," the piece from which the exhibition takes its name, was the work that she exhibited at her now famous 1966 exhibition at the Indica Gallery in London. The piece consisted of a white stepladder that viewers were invited to climb. Hanging on a chain from the ceiling was a magnifying glass. Viewers could use the magnifying glass to read a tiny piece of text on the ceiling. The text merely read "Yes."

As Beatles aficionados may recall, it was at that exhibition she met John Lennon. Lennon said in later interviews that he felt relieved that "Yes"'s message revealed something affirmative, as opposed to what he thought was the negativism of the avant-garde in that era. Lennon and Ono married in 1969.

The List Center is exhibiting the ladder that was used in the 1966 exhibit.

But if you're hoping to climb the same rungs that Lennon once scaled, you're in for a disappointment. The ladder, and the platform on which it rests, are off limits to visitors. Not for safety reasons, as one might assume, but because the ladder must be kept in archival condition understandable, yet that changes the piece markedly. Ono's work blurs the distinction between artist and spectator, allowing the spectator to complete the piece through an activity." In its current installation, "Yes"'s true message is only hearsay.

Had non-historic objects been used in place of the original ones, "Yes" may have sacrificed some of its nostalgic kick but paradoxically gained a great deal in authenticity.

This is a small complaint, however. The outstanding quality of works presented, and the breadth of Ono's artistic achievement offers much to consider and debate. Her reputation will undoubtedly be bolstered wherever this exhibition travels. Paul Parcellin

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Indepth Arts News:

"Y E S YOKO ONO"
2002-06-22 until 2002-09-08
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
San Francisco, CA, USA

YES YOKO ONO offers the first comprehensive reevaluation of Onos work, exploring her position within the postwar international avant-garde and her critical and influential role in originating forms of cutting-edge art, music, film, and performance. The exhibition examines her early and central role in Fluxus, an avant-garde movement that developed in New York in the early 1960s; her important contributions to Conceptual art in New York, London, and Tokyo; her concerts; experimental films; vocal recordings; public art, including works made with John Lennon; and recent works, including interactive installations and site-specific art.

Avant-garde figures such as John Cage, George Maciunas, Nam June Paik, Charlotte Moorman, Andy Warhol, and Ornette Coleman collaborated with Ono, and their resulting works are also represented. Accompanying the exhibition is the catalogue YES YOKO ONO, the first major art publication surveying Onos artistic career, co-published by Japan Society and Harry N. Abrams, Inc. The catalogue features an essay by former SFMOMA director David A. Ross and includes a CD of new musical works by Yoko Ono.

The exhibition title, YES YOKO ONO, refers to the interactive installation known as Ceiling Painting, an important work shown at Onos historic 1966 Indica Gallery show in London. The viewer is invited to climb a white ladder, at the top of which a magnifying glass, attached by a chain, hangs from a frame on the ceiling. The viewer uses the reading glass to discover a block-letter instruction beneath the framed sheet of glass it says Y E S. It was through this work that Ono met her future husband and longtime collaborator, John Lennon. (Note: Due to the fragile nature of its materials, the installation is no longer interactive.)

Born in Tokyo in 1933 into a prominent banking family, part of Japans social and intellectual elite, Ono received rigorous training in classical music, German lieder, and Italian opera. She attended an exclusive school where her schoolmates included Japans present emperor, Akihito, and Yukio Mishima, the world-renowned novelist who committed ritual seppuku, or suicide by disembowelment, to protest Japans Westernization. Ono, raised partly in America, witnessed Japans devastation in World War II, and by the time she entered Gakushuin University in 1952 as its first female philosophy student, she was swept up by the intellectual climate of the postwar Japanese avant-garde. This movement was characterized by a spirit of rebellion against all orthodoxy, a yearning for individual self-expression, and a desire for spiritual freedom in a landscape reduced to absolute nothingness by the ravages of warfare.

Disillusioned with academic philosophy, Ono left Japan to join her family in New York. Attending Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, she soon gravitated to the vibrant art community of lower Manhattan. At the time, non-Western cultures, especially those of China and Japan, were inspiring new forms of artistic expression.

A loose association of these artists was eventually formed under the name of Fluxus. The group experimented with mixing poetry, music, and the visual arts through a wide spectrum of activities including concerts and exhibitions. As a member of Fluxus, Ono presented work and launched a career that would take her back to Japan, where she became an active member of the Tokyo avant-garde, back to New York, and then to London, where the 1966 Indica Gallery show took place.

In the decades since that seminal show, Ono has continued to expand the boundaries of her art in diverse media. After her marriage to John Lennon in 1969, she collaborated with him on a number of projects in music, creating a bridge between avant-garde and rock in releases such as Unfinished Music for Two Virgins (1968), Wedding Album (1969), and Double Fantasy (1980). Their happenings, Bed-Ins for Peace, and the billboard campaign, War Is Over! If You Want It, were landmark projects created to promote world peace, a continuing theme in their work together.

During the 1980s, influenced by the rampant materialism of the decade, Ono revisited some of her 1960s objects, transforming works that were originally light and transparent into bronze, symbolizing a shift from what she calls the sixties sky to the new age of commodity and solidity. In the 1990s, Onos prolific output of interactive installations, site-specific works, Internet projects, concerts, and recordings were widely represented in numerous venues across Europe, America, Japan, and Australia.

IMAGE
Yoko Ono
Ceiling Painting (YES Painting), 1966
Text on paper, glass, metal frame, metal chain, and painting ladder
Collection of the artist
Photo: Oded Lobl

The Fluxus Movement (top of page)
by Peter Frank

The Fluxus movement emerged in New York around 1960, then it took root in Europe, and eventually in its way to Japan. The movement encompassed a new aesthetic that had already appeared on three continents. That aesthetic encompasses a reductive gesturality, part Dada, part Bauhaus and part Zen, and presumes that all media and all artistic disciplines are fair game for combination and fusion. Fluxus presaged avant-garde developments over the last 40 years.

Fluxus objects and performances are characterized by minimalist but often expansive gestures based in scientific, philosophical, sociological, or other extra-artistic ideas and leavened with burlesque.

Yoko Ono is the best-known individual associated with Fluxus, but many artists have associated themselves with Fluxus since its emergence. In the '60s, when the Fluxus movement was most active, artists all over the globe worked in concert with a spontaneously generated but carefully maintained Fluxus network. Since then, Fluxus has endured not so much as a movement but as a sensibility--a way of fusing certain radical social attitudes with ever--evolving aesthetic practices. Initially received as little more than an international network of pranksters, the admittedly playful artists of Fluxus were, and remain, a network of radical visionaries who have sought to change political and social, as well as aesthetic, perception.

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Cut Piece by Yoko Ono, Theatre Le Ranelagh, Paris, France: September 15th 2003


From Reuters (September 16th 2003)

"John Lennon's widow Yoko Ono watched on as dozens of strangers cut her clothes off piece by piece in a Paris theatre on Monday, leaving the artist on stage wearing nothing but her underwear. The 70-year old Ono, who accompanied her Beatle husband in numerous controversial anti-war campaigns including the "Bed-In for Peace" against the Vietnam War, first performed her "Cut Piece" show in 1964 in Japan as a protest for peace. At the end of the show then, she stood naked on stage. Almost 40 years on, the slender artist again asked her audience to cut strips off her tight black top and long layered skirt, to send the cut-out pieces to a person they love. "Never forget love," Ono said as she sat down on a stool on the stage of Paris' wood-panelled Ranelagh theatre.

Whispering to each other in low voices, art-lovers from all ages advanced towards the stage, with the artist's son Sean Lennon being the first one to cut a hole into her sleeve. "It was nerve-wracking," Lennon said after the performance. "She is really brave to do this again. It was very moving and very intense." Ono looked straight ahead and barely moved as a man dressed in a suit cut a piece off her skirt to reveal a large part of her thigh and a young woman cut through the strap of her bra.

"I was a little bit scared," Ono told Reuters after the show. "But I wasn't that scared because I tried to do it with love. And I think there is a lot of love out there," said Ono, whose face barely shows any wrinkles. "I am older. But I felt that I was doing it for world peace." "(--) I think I came closer to people here (than in 1964)," Ono said. "I think we were all together and I think we can keep on doing things, and I hope that we will achieve world peace."

Yoko Ono to Reuters: "In the 1960s I did it out of anger. But now, I'm doing it for love, and that makes a big difference," she said, but added that she would not do the show again."


From The Guardian (September 16th 2003)

"In the end no-one could bring themselves to snip her knickers off. Yoko Ono's commitment to nudity in the name of peace was replaced by a modest display of matching underwear.

Almost 40 years after she first performed Cut Piece in Tokyo, the 70- year-old artist was moved to recreate her striptease performance in protest at the political climate following the September 11 attacks. For an hour and twenty minutes last night, the audience at a small Parisian theatre had the chance to cut away pieces of Ono's outfit to mark their solidarity with her hopes for world peace. But the spirit of the 1960s was painfully absent, and the occasion was marked by a mood of timid politeness. Around 200 people queued up to chop away at her t-shirt and expensive-looking black silk skirt. One by one they climbed on to the stage, picked up the scissors and removed a snippet of material. Leaflets explaining the procedure advised the audience to cut away pieces no larger than a postcard (and to "send the scrap of fabric to someone you love"). Because of the large number of protective ruffles on the skirt, the performance was prolonged.

At 7.25pm Ono adopted a long-suffering gaze as the first shirt fragment was removed. At 7.40 she was obliged to stop one enthusiastic audience member from chopping up her black suede shoes.

By 8.29 she remained sitting demurely on a wooden stool - her bra exposed and her skirt a little gnawed at the edges. Even her son, Sean Lennon, sitting in the front row, let out a discreet yawn.

A few minutes later a young man sliced through the waistband, leaving her in her underpants.

One piece of bra elastic was cut through and then the queue of people faded away, apparently too inhibited to continue. Ono retreated into the wings in a pink kimono.

Art historians often describe the 1964 occasion as a "violation" of Ono by the audience, who stripped her - "more like a rape than an art performance". Last night's performance was a very courteous violation."

From Evening Standard (September 16th 2003)

 

Yoko Ono had high expectations for her one-off art show in Paris. "Cut Piece is my hope for world peace," she declared. The 70-year-old poet, conceptual artist and widow of John Lennon, took to the stage last night to repeat one of her most famous performances. Ono cut a minimal, stylish figure as she emerged with her spiky hair swept back, in purple sunglasses, a flowing black skirt and a flimsy black top. She began with an even flimsier poem: "Never forget the sea/never forget love/never forget love". A few light touches helped prick the hippy pomposity. "I love you all," she told us, before adding "... for tonight!" She then held up a pair of scissors and announced: "Come on then!". First on stage was a tall American in a floral shirt, who cut clumsily, dropped the scissors loudly and then exited the wrong way."

"A touching moment was the sight of Sean Lennon removing a portion of his mother's skirt. A routine rhythm established itself. Claps and cheers rewarded more creative efforts, as when one woman cut a piece off her own dress and presented it to Ono."

"Yoko Ono had high expectations for her oneoff art show in Paris. "Cut Piece is my hope for world peace," she declared. The 70-year-old poet, conceptual artist and widow of John Lennon, took to the stage last night to repeat one of her most famous performances. Ono cut a minimal, stylish figure as she emerged with her spiky hair swept back, in purple sunglasses, a flowing black skirt and a flimsy black top. She began with an even flimsier poem: "Never forget the sea/never forget love/never forget love". A few light touches helped prick the hippy pomposity. "I love you all," she told us, before adding "... for tonight!" She then held up a pair of scissors and announced: "Come on then!". First on stage was a tall American in a floral shirt, who cut clumsily, dropped the scissors loudly and then exited the wrong way."

"A touching moment was the sight of Sean Lennon removing a portion of his mother's skirt. A routine rhythm established itself. Claps and cheers rewarded more creative efforts, as when one woman cut a piece off her own dress and presented it to Ono."


Sean Lennon with his mother. Photo by Michel Euler / AP.

"I was just here to say imagine world peace and to say I love you," Ono said after the show. "Let's create a peaceful world. I'm hoping these things will help."

"Following the political changes through the year after 9/11, I felt terribly vulnerable - like the most delicate wind could bring me tears," Ono wrote in a presentation for the show. "Cut Piece is my hope for world peace."

By allowing strangers to approach her with scissors, Ono said she hoped to show this is "a time where we need to trust each other." Spectators walked away saying the message was clear. "Scissors usually have a violent connotation but she turns it around to make it peaceful," said Katherine Williams, an 18-year-old Californian studying in Paris. "I think that's what she's saying - you can make peace out of violence."

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The Many Voices of the Poet Ai

by Pat Harrison

The Radcliff Quarterly, Spring 2000


In this age of multiculturalism, when so many writers are exploring their ethnic identity, the poet Ai B '76--who is half Japanese, as well as African American and Native American--defies the times by assuming a myriad of other identities and voices, none expressly her own. Ai's six volumes of poetry, which began appearing in 1973 and culminated last year in a major collection of new and selected poems, feature dramatic monologues by people whose voices don't usually make it into literature: a child-beater, a rapist, a self-abortionist. She has also written in the persona of public figures as diverse as J. Edgar Hoover, Marilyn Monroe, and Mary Jo Kopechne. But until recently, when Ai began work on a memoir, she had not written directly about her own background in what she's described as a "half-breed culture" in Tucson.

"I like making up characters," Ai told the Quarterly in a recent phone interview. "Writing the monologue has afforded me that opportunity, but I really kind of fell into it. My first poetry teacher said that the first person is often the strongest, and that seemed to be my gift. I just did it so well that every poem I wrote in the first person seemed to be a success, whereas others weren't. So I did it over and over, and by the second year of graduate school, I was firmly on that path. I find it very exciting to become other people. I don't think of them as masks for myself. Some people say that, but to me they're not. They're my characters; they're not me."

Photo of Ai

Inspiration for her monologues comes from diverse sources, including late-night television. "For my Jimmy Hoffa poem," Ai said, "I was watching Johnny Carson one night and he told a joke. 'Who did they find under Tammy Fay Baker's makeup?' The answer was Jimmy Hoffa. And I said to myself, 'I want to write a poem about Jimmy Hoffa.'"

More recently, she's been writing a cycle of poems about the race riot that occurred in Tulsa in 1921, when the Greenwood section of the city, known as the black Wall Street, was set afire by white men and boys. "I was watching Nightline," Ai reported, "and one of the survivors said there was so much smoke and fire that his sister said, 'Brother, is the world on fire?' That line got me into my poems."

From the beginning of her career, publication has come easily to Ai, perhaps in part because her poetry is so accessible. As an undergraduate at the University of Arizona, she met her mentor, New York University Professor Galway Kinnell, when he came to campus to read. After the reading, Ai began sending her poetry to Kinnell for his comments, and he encouraged her to apply to the writing program at the University of California at Irvine. During her second year at Irvine, Kinnell took a copy of Ai's thesis to an editor at Houghton Mifflin, and in 1973, her first book, Cruelty, appeared. It was after Cruelty came out that Ai was awarded her Bunting fellowship, which she held in 1975-76. Five additional books followed: Killing Floor (1979), Sin (1986), Fate (1991), Greed (1993), and Vice (1999), all published by Houghton Mifflin except the last two, which Norton brought out.

Photo of Book:
Vice: New and Selected Poems.

The titles of Ai's books indicate the gritty content of her poems. Listen, for example, to the opening lines of "The Cockfighter's Daughter," from her book Fate: "I found my father,/face down, in his homemade chili /and had to hit the bowl/with a hammer to get it off,/then scrape the pinto beans/and chunks of ground beef/off his face with a knife." Some critics have accused the poet of sensationalism, while others have lauded her risk-taking. Whatever the critics think, though, Ai's books have always done well with readers, selling better than poetry usually does.

"I decided to go the Wordsworthian way when I was in grad school," Ai said, "and write in the language of the common man. I don't know if I succeeded, but that was one of my goals. I made my work as accessible as I could, without compromising my intelligence."

Ai's plain speaking has certainly earned her a share of prizes. In addition to her Bunting fellowship, she has won a Guggenheim fellowship, the Lamont Prize, an American Book Award, and, most recently, for Vice: New and Selected Poems (Norton, 1999), the life-changing National Book Award. Before this latest award, Ai was a visiting professor at Oklahoma State University, a position similar to the many teaching appointments she's held throughout her career. But last fall, on her return to Stillwater from accepting the award in New York, OSU offered her tenure as a full professor. "The financial security that I have wanted my whole career I now have. It was almost too much for me. I had wanted it for so long."

Now comfortably ensconced at OSU, Ai is conducting research for her memoir, looking up relatives who were members of the Choctaw and Southern Cheyenne tribes in Oklahoma. One of the next voices we hear from the poet Ai will likely reflect her own rich history, including details about that Tucson "half-breed" culture.

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 Ai's first book, Cruelty, received critical acclaim when it was published in 1973. Her second book, Killing Floor, was the 1978 Lamont Poetry Selection of the Academy of American Poets. Her next book, Sin (1987), won an American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation and was followed by Fate in 1991. In 1999 Vice was the winner of the National Book Award for Poetry. Ai is a native of the American Southwest and lives in Tucson, Arizona. In the year 2002-2003 she will hold the Mitte Chair in Creative Writing at Southwest Texas State University.

JIM LEHRER: The National Book awards were announced last night in New York. Awards were given for poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and children's literature. Elizabeth Farnsworth begins a series of conversations with the winning authors.

viceELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The winner for poetry this year is known as Ai, a Japanese word meaning "love." She won the award for Vice, a book of new and selected poems, many of them dramatic monologues. Born in 1947 in Albany, Texas, Ai published her first book in 1973. She currently teaches poetry and fiction at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater. Thanks for being with us, and congratulations.

AI, National Book Award, Poetry: Oh, thank you, and you're welcome.

 

Tough topics for poetry

boxesELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I'm struck by the tough topics you take on. You deal with child abuse, murder, necrophilia, torture. What draws you to these topics?

AI: Well, it's really the characters, because I write monologues. So when I find an interesting character, I usually start that way. I'll think of somebody who interests me, and then fill in the blanks, so to speak. So it's sort of happenstance in a weird way, you know. It's just sort of... I'm sort of constructing these lives. But I tend to like scoundrels. I like to write about scoundrels because they are more rounded characters in some respects than a really good person. You know, there's a lot more to talk about with the scoundrels.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And, why the dramatic monologue form?

aiAI: I'm very comfortable in that form. My first poetry teacher said that when you wrote in the first person, that your work was often stronger. And I discovered over the years that that was... my poems that were written in the first person were the strongest. And I sort of kind of fell into that, so by grad school, that's all I wrote. And I love it, because it's so interesting. Every time I write a poem, I'm someone else without actually being that person, you know? It's really great.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And I may have missed something in looking at your poetry, but as far as I can tell, you're almost always someone else. It's not about yourself, even though it's in the first person.

AI: There will be, like, little things in poems sometimes. But if I don't tell you, you'd never know that I was dealing with something from my own life.

Jimmy Hoffa's Odyssey  

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: All right, let's read one. Let's read the one about Jimmy Hoffa.

AI: Okay. One night I was watching Johnny Carson, and he told this joke. And he said, "Who did they find under Tammy Faye Bakker's makeup?" And the answer was Jimmy Hoffa. And it was just like that, snap my fingers, "I want to write about Jimmy Hoffa." I usually read biographies when I write about historical figures, so I got a biography, and I was stuck for a while. I had a great opening and then was stuck. Then when I hit on Hoffa having been abducted by an alien, I had my poem. Unfortunately, we won't hear that part of the poem.

"Jimmy Hoffa's Odyssey": I remember summers when the ice man used to come, a hunk of winter caught between his iron tongs and in the kitchen, my ma with the rag, wiping the floor when he'd gone. Sweet song of the vegetable man, like the music a million silver dollars make as they jingle-jangle in that big pocket of your dreams. Dreams, yes, and lies. When I was a boy, I hauled ashes in a wagon pulled by a bony horse, not even good enough for soap. aiSo later, when they called me a stocky little dock worker with my slicked-back black hair, my two-toned shoes, cheap suits and fat, smelly cigars, I didn't care. I had my compensation. Bobby Kennedy didn't want to understand. But to the Teamsters back in '58, I had 'em all in my pockets then: Statesmen, lawyers, movie stars, Joe Lewis for God's sake. For a time, I won spin after spin on the tin wheel of fate. But in the end, like those glory boys Jack and Bobby, I was only icing on the sucker cake."

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: How did you get into his head? You've been in Trotsky's head and a lot of other people in your poems. How do you do it?

AI: Well, it's almost as if, you know, I'm an actor. I feel all the roles. Like, I'm the actor, I'm the writer, the director and everything. Sort of like a method actor. Sort of like De Niro, but I don't gain weight as De Niro did in "Raging Bull." It's all in my mind. I really didn't have the Hoffa character until I read that he always referred to himself in the third person. Once I had that and my alien abduction, I was on the road to completion, so to speak.

The name: Ai  
boxesELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Now about you personally just a little bit: How did you get the name Ai?

AI: Ai is my middle name. My father was Japanese. And my mother is Choctaw Indian, southern Cheyenne, black, Dutch and Irish. They love the Irish part. They never talk much about the Dutch part. So I'm truly all American, you know.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Did getting the book award surprise you?

AI: Yes, because I convinced myself I wasn't going to win. And I was full of self-pity yesterday. I couldn't get a taxi. I was down on West 17th. I couldn't get a taxi. I said, "They're torturing me. I'm not going to win this thing anyway."

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Why were you so sure you wouldn't win?

AI: I don't know -- you know -- because I had been optimistic the night before. But I think partly, when I'm realistic about my work, it's rather edgy and very dark in many respects. And I was worried that someone whose work was a bit safer than mine might win.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Why do you think your work is so edgy and dark, aside from the fact you love scoundrels? You're very interested in violence.

AI: Well, I think violence is an integral part of American culture, and I set out to deal with it, actually, you know. I felt that when I was an undergrad, I was not able to deal with violence in my work, so I made it a point to be able to do that. I've always preferred tragedy. For instance, Shakespeare's tragedies are my favorites. I rarely go to comedies. But I do have a sense of humor. It's warped, but it is a sense of humor.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I thank you very much. Congratulations again.

AI: Oh, thank you. Take care.

  Ai comments:

Ai is the only name by which I wish, and indeed, should be known. Since I am the child of a scandalous affair my mother had with a Japanese man she met at a streetcar stop, and I was forced to live a lie for so many years, while my mother concealed my natural father's identity from me, I feel that I should not have to be identified with a man, who was only my stepfather, for all eternity.

My writing of dramatic monologues was a happy accident, because I took so much to heart the opinion of my first poetry teacher, Richard Shelton, the fact that the first person voice was always the stronger voice to use when writing. What began as an experiment in that voice became the only voice in which I wrote for about twenty years. Lately, though, I've been writing poems and short stories using the second person, without, it seems to me, any diminution in the power of my work. Still, I feel that the dramatic monologue was the form in which I was born to write and I love it as passionately, or perhaps more passionately, than I have ever loved a man.


A. Robert Lee

Born in Tucson, Arizona, the poet AI, pseudonym of Florence Anthony, looks to a complex American multicultural ancestry--a Japanese father and a mother part black, Choctaw, and Irish. Raised also in Las Vegas and San Francisco, she majored in Japanese at the University of Arizona and immersed herself in Buddhism. Currently based in Tempe, she has received awards from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and various universities; she has also been a frequent reader-performer of her work.

So eclectic, not to say peaceable, an upbringing makes a striking contrast with the kind of poetry that has won her ongoing attention. Her particular forte has been to adapt Robert Browning's dramatic monologue to her own purposes, poems whose different voices speak of fracture, violence, revenge, sexual hunger, as if to emphasize the human disorder both beneath (and often enough at the surface of) society.

Cruelty (1973) offers a run of soliloquies, dealing with, among other things, suicide, abortion, female masturbation, hanging, child-beating, and the unpredictability of desire. AIs style of poetic utterance has from the outset rarely been other than tough-edged, in the words of an early critic, "as if she made her poem(s) with a knife." Little wonder that the title poem in Cruelty begins with an image of a dead wildcat. In Killing Floor (1978), a poem like "The Kid" assumes the voice of a boy-murderer, a natural-born killer, who methodically and pathologically destroys his entire family only to emerge sweet-faced and apparently unperturbed.

Sin (1986) attempts yet more complex personae--ruminations, for the most part, of men of power, Joe McCarthy to the Kennedy brothers. In "The Testament of J. Robert Oppenheimer" the note is transcendental, millennial, that of the Manhattan Project leader eventually troubled by the possibilities of nuclear mass-destruction. In 'The Good Shepherd," however, the voice, more locally but no less chillingly, belongs to the anonymous mass-murderer of Atlanta's black youth. "Saturn. . . devours its children," says the killer. Fate: New Poems (1991) offers a further gallery, equally dark, a speaking dead that includes General George Custer, Mary Jo Kopechne (now the bitter, retrospective party-girl), Elvis Presley, Lenny Bruce, and President Lyndon Johnson.

AI opens her fifth collection, Greed (1993), with "Riot Act, April 29, 1992," a poem spoken as if by an unnamed black rioter taken into police custody in South Central Los Angeles, who ruefully construes the looting and fires in the aftermath of Rodney King's beating as "the day the wealth finally trickled down." A similar bittersweet note runs through "Self Defense." Washington, D.C.'s mayor Marion Barry, sentenced for crack possession after an FBI setup, is forced to conclude, 'That is how you hold the nigger down." In "Hoover, Edgar J.," law enforcement as paranoia has its say, the meanness at once racist, homophobic, class-loaded. The diatribe ends boastingly and bullyingly: "J. Edgar Hoover rules." Other monologue-poems equally offer markers for the times--whether in the voice of Jack Ruby, or of a witness to the Marcos regime in Manila, or of a street girl contemplating Mike Tyson and the Desiree Washington rape.

As always this amounts to a slightly stylized ventriloquy, creating an effect of distance, things seen at one remove. All has not by any means been praise; critics have on occasion thought the poetry monotone, close to mannerism, too determinedly dour or black-humored. But AI is not to be denied her own kind of verse Gothic, an America, a world, seen as though through disembodied witness and nothing if not at one with her slightly maverick status in contemporary African American poetry.

From The Oxford Companion to African American Literature. Copyright © Oxford University Press

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  The Stratospheric Canticles
ISBN: 1880766086
Author:
Will Alexander  
Format: Paperback
All Editions   Similar Books  
Callaloo
22.2 (1999) 409-416

 

 Will Alexander's"Transmundane Specific"

Aldon Lynn Nielsen

The quagmire don't hang out no signs.

                   --Folk Aphorism

. . . I've been banished and slandered by those in my general purview, by those who protest the sum of my arcane methodologies.

--Will Alexander (Towards the Primeval 19)

If it is an oddly futuristic arcana that Will Alexander invokes in his poetry and prose, it is at the same time the most familiar form of defamiliarization. Looking into the drawings that often accompany his texts, those scorings of his "Mime Tornadoes" and "Psychotropic Squalls," often produces the same sort of vertigo felt when looking into deepest space through the most advanced of telescopic technologies. Our sense of being at the edge of the new is tempered by our knowledge that the light reaching us images ancient events. Alexander's science is a fiction that presents us with ancient evenings reflected "in a mirror of scratch paper sonnets" (Stratospheric 33). His is a future anterior that comes to us out of a tradition of African-American re-imagining. Sun Ra devoted a lifetime to telling us of "other planes of there," "other worlds they have not told you of," worlds that seemed placed simultaneously in ancient Egypt and deep in the future. The Art Ensemble of Chicago has built a career around their motto, "Great Black Music, Ancient to the Future." Amiri Baraka's album of poetry and music It's Nation Time billed itself as "Afrikan Visionary Music" and carried cover art in which the ancient inscriptions of black Africa gave onto a futurist dawning of a new day past the pyramids. Each of these artists has contributed to a history of pan-African modernity, an internationalist, African-inflected surrealism that leads directly to Will Alexander's front door.

There is seldom mention of these traditions in the few public discussions of Alexander's work that have appeared in the past. Precisely because Alexander's writing is such a "seeming nightmare idiom" (Stratospheric 69), critics and blurb writers have approached it as if it were a dream of their own, deeply rooted in their own anxieties. And those anxieties have had to do often with arguments that are not necessarily Alexander's. In the effort to establish a footing for a "post-language school" poetics, which is not at all a bad thing to do, some writers have attempted to enlist Alexander's works in their cause, overlooking in the process both his age (it's [End Page 409] hard to argue that a poet born in 1948 is part of a generation that comes after Ron Silliman) and the long record of his writing and publication. Eliot Weinberger, equally unsympathetic to "language" poetries, enrolls Alexander in a party of one in opposition to all that Weinberger himself finds distasteful. Hence, and here I must admit to being both a professor and a poet, Weinberger introduces a selection of Alexander's work in the journal Sulfur with a slam at "the professors--or worse, the poet-professors--talking about 'marginalization'" (227). For Weinberger, it is important that Alexander is "almost totally hidden from other poets," that he "lives entirely outside of the pobiz world of prizes, grants, readings, teaching positions," that his "work resembles no one's," and that he "has appeared in exactly eight magazines." The fact that Alexander had appeared in one of those magazines, Nathaniel Mackey's Hambone, at least four times might seem to take some of the force from this last observation. Indeed, as Weinberger notes, this was Alexander's second appearance in the well-circulated Sulfur, which must have made it difficult for Alexander to remain "almost totally hidden from other poets." And it is greatly to be hoped that Will Alexander's poetry will still prove of value to Weinberger, and newer readers, now that Will Alexander has become considerably less hidden, has been invited to give an ever-increasing number of readings and, god help him, has actually been observed teaching writing students at more than one campus. One can only rejoice that Alexander is finally receiving a modicum of the attention he has long deserved; he has deserved it for his work, as Weinberger would surely attest, and not simply by virtue of having gone so long without recognition. More importantly, though, and without denying any element of Alexander's real originality, no good purpose is served by declaring his work sui generis. To assert that "he is probably the only African-American poet to take Aimé Césaire as a spiritual father" (Weinberger 227) is to obliterate at a stroke a lineage that would include, at the very least, Jayne Cortez. So, while Eliot Weinberger is to be thanked at every opportunity for helping to open the doors to a wider readership for Alexander, this sort of thing inevitably leads to pointless arguments about who is the real heir to Césaire and disputes about the blurbs on the back of Alexander's books (such as the debate between reviewer Mark Scroggins and his readers in a recent issue of American Book Review).

Will Alexander's writing is unlikely to be mistaken for that of any other living poet, but his highly politicized practice of a uniquely North American surrealism needs to be understood as an innovation within an ongoing revolution in black poetics. Much of that revolution has been hidden from view by critical and historical practices of the past two decades, however, leading to distorted views of the very recent past of literary history and to odd lacunae in the critical reception of such recent poets as Nathaniel Mackey, Harryette Mullen, Erica Hunt and Will Alexander. While the poems of Tom Postell, Oliver Pitcher and Jayne Cortez bristle with obvious allusions to Gertrude Stein, William Carlos Williams, Appolinaire, even, as in Bob Kaufman's work, to Maxwell Bodenheim, there is a generational, diasporic link to modernism that is made across a diasporic rupture, through the Afro-Caribbean poetries of Negritude and Negrismo. North American poets read, not only Lorca and Breton, but also Guillén, Pales Matos, Depestre, Césaire, Diop, Damas and Senghor. [End Page 410]

Thus we find Lorenzo Thomas writing a poem titled "Hiccups, after Leon Damas," memorializing the earlier Negritude poet's most famous work by replicating it for a North American, English language tradition:

Seven gorgeous waters. Gulp!
Three or four times past twenty-four hours
I remember my childhood infancy
In a hiccup sequence
hiccup hiccup Pope pap hiccup hiccup
     instinct, man . . . (63)

Not only did Damas's poem delight and influence successive generations of readers, Damas himself spent many years in the United States, teaching at Howard University for a time. Jayne Cortez, in her "At a Certain Moment in History," opposes the inspiration of a Césaire to what she sees as an often insipid contemporary poetizing:

It was no exotic voodoo movie script
no get down deep in the Congo poetry slam
It was Césaire
    returning to
a forest of dangerous plants
A forest even home boys didn't enter
without revolutionary intentions
& at that moment of no compromise
his poetry became poetry unique to poetry. (92-93)

Black poets in North America were drawn to the techniques of surrealism and dada, which in some ways resemble the compact and hyperbolic imagery and discourse of black oral and musical traditions, as in the aphorism with which I opened this discussion or as in such song titles as "smokestack lightnin'." Post World War II poets in America also read beyond the aesthetic principles of surrealism and found the radical political statements of some of surrealism's principal figures. But North American poets found in the poetics of Negrismo, and of Negritude an attractive appropriation of modernist techniques that appeared to them in some ways at least to be a reappropriation. Senghor argued that "the important thing to understand is not the real, but the surreal--." However, he went on to argue that the surreal is in fact that which "lies beneath the real" (Vaillant 253), and that there was an identifiable racial difference in the surrealism of Europe and that of Negritude. For Senghor, the black man must go beyond and behind

daylight reality to the essence beneath. To this extent, he might seem to share the aesthetic of the modernist poet or the Surrealist in his rejection of the importance of superficial appearance. Unlike the European Surrealist, however, who downplays the importance of external appearance because he thinks that all experience is subjective, the African minimizes the importance [End Page 411] of external appearance because he knows that it is only the surface manifestation of an underlying reality. That underlying reality, not his own mind, is the focus of his interest. (Vaillant 253)

Though some black poets, particularly in the wake of the Black Arts Movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s, would question Senghor's commitment to a poetics of essence, there clearly was a powerfully experienced difference in the way that black people in Africa and its diaspora and European surrealists felt the weight of Western humanism. The Paris Surrealist group wrote to denounce what they viewed as the murderous humanitarianism of colonialism, in an essay that was widely read in America after its appearance in Nancy Cunard's Negro anthology, but the poets of Negritude were the objects of that humanitarianism, that armed, defining humanism of Western enlightenment. In his "Letter to a Prisoner," Senghor saw "Science and Humanity erecting their police lines / At the borders of negritude" (62). In his verse drama And The Dogs Were Silent, Césaire reimagines the white man's burden in the monologue of a colonial administrator:

Ungrateful people!
Moreover it is debatable whether there is in the world
apart from ourselves any people who think, I mean
really think, who do not ruminate the confused mingling
of a few vapid ideas brought back to the lower brain
still warm from their breathing or their sleep.
    Wearily
Ah we are alone
And what a burden!
To bear alone the burden of civilization! (5)

In establishing the genealogies of postmodernity in African-American verse, though, we cannot stop at the point where black American poets discover in the generation of negritude a conjoining of modernist poetics to a posthumanist critique of the West. For that response, as powerful as it is, must in its turn be viewed as participating in a diasporic dialectic of cross-Atlantic rereadings. In Senghor's poem "To New York" the poet advises, "You have only to listen to God's trombones, to your heart" (88). His invocation of what is perhaps James Weldon Johnson's best-known poem, as much as his tribute to New York itself, should alert us to the underlying reality of black American influence upon Negritude. Senghor has paid tribute to Sterling Brown, for a time a colleague of Damas at Howard, as "an original militant of Negritude" and a precursor of the movement (Gabbin 7). In Paris, where Senghor met Césaire and Damas, he also read copies of Crisis and Opportunity, where he encountered the work of Brown, Hughes, McKay, Toomer, Cullen and others. Senghor established a friendship in Paris with the family of Louis Achille, who had been a professor at Howard, and in that home he met black intellectuals from throughout the diaspora, including novelist René Maran, and Howard University Dean Mercer [End Page 412] Cook, who was one of the first "to publicize in the United States the work of French-speaking blacks" (Vaillant 91). Members of the group that gathered around the Achille and Nardal families in Paris soon began to publish La Revue du Monde Noir, creating a formal publishing link among poets and scholars of Africa, the Caribbean and the United States. It was also during his Paris years that Senghor read Alain Locke's The New Negro.

The pan-Atlantic and multi-lingual movements feeding into Negritude, and from there into the post-War American avant garde, though insufficiently historicized in American literary studies, were extensive and their influence continues today. Mercer Cook returned to Howard with an anthology he had put together of French-speaking black writers to use in his courses in Washington, D.C. Senghor went on to aid Diop in founding Presence Africaine, in whose bi-lingual pages many Americans published their work, and many more Americans read the developing politics and poetics of the black world.

The continuing adaptation of surrealism in North America is a racialized dialectic in which the poetics are transformed by black poets confronting ideologies of race and genre within the existing space of form. This mode of interdiction parallels the interruptions of European philosophizing made by Frantz Fanon. Writing of Fanon's interrogations of existentialism, Paget Henry argues that:

It was a new move within the tradition. This existential coding liberated the zone [of the Afro-Caribbean psyche] from its invisibility and nonrecognition in dominant discourses of the tradition. It supplemented the emancipatory appropriations of European liberalism, socialism, constitutionalism, and surrealism that was evident in the works of Garvey, James, Césaire, and other Afro-Caribbean writers. (235)

Henry contrasts Fanon's form of supplemental, emancipatory appropriation to the "repressive use to which some of these same philosophical appropriations were put by Euro-Caribbean writers" (235). In much the same way, a contemporary African-American poet such as Will Alexander will seize upon the prose poem as a space in which to reassert the innovations of Césaire against more widely-recognized forms of poets' prose, while replicating Césaire's radical reappropriations of surrealism as a mode of interdiction against dominant conceptions of the "rational." Alexander's poem "Hypoteneuse Shadows Shouting Buffalo Lyrics" begins: "This is the problem I propose to Mssrs. Whitehead and Russell; measure your deaths in terms of the leaps of your ashes. The logic of keeping your bones from skipping spaces, from popping through the grass of some buffalo's eyeball at mealtime" (12). In his prose poem, Alexander confounds the analytic modes of Russell and Whitehead and confronts them with the real surrealism of lynch mobs and the murderers of Emmet Till. But Alexander's work does not simply make an argument about race and reason, his prose poem appears within the myth-making structures of literature as a means of disrupting the myth-making in progress: [End Page 413]

Outside myself and bleeding on my own discoveries I discover in a cave Pythagorian lodestones broken in the air of Chaldean snake myths. These myths, burrowed in the fingers of the wandering poet who writes with the sweat of vituperative magic, who succumbs in the sentence to rifle and axe blade. (13)

Where Charles Olson argued for a hands-on history in which the poet would find out the myths for himself (and for Olson it seemed very much to be a himself), Alexander makes these discoveries outside himself and reads in them a vituperative magic. His is, if anything, a yet more projective verse.

Among those American poets whose works have most powerfully instigated further innovations in the 20th century, the major portion have chosen to work in the patterns explored by William Carlos Williams and Langston Hughes. The aesthetics that have evolved from the experiments of those poets have wedded radical formal innovations to a quotidian language, seeking in the rhythms of American idioms for their formal occasions. Will Alexander has taken a path considerably less traveled. To the extent that he resembles Williams, it is the Williams of Kora in Hell, the Williams most affected by surrealism and dada. Though Alexander shares Hughes's passion for jazz, the Hughes that he resembles is not so much the Hughes of Ask Your Mama as it is the Hughes who befriended and translated the poets of Negrismo and Negritude. Where the radical compression brought from the blues and from modernist free verse provoked poets such as Amiri Baraka and Clarence Major to experiment with syntactic disruption, Alexander has moved to an ever more expansive exploration of the semantic register. Which is to say at the same time that nobody likely speaks as Alexander writes, but we've heard his kind of talk before.

The overt influence of Césaire is easily located. Alexander's reference to a "Cadastral map" in his recently published prose collection Towards the Primeval Lightning Field echoes the title of one of Césaire's significant works, Cadastre. The bilingual edition of Cadastre published by The Third Press identifies the cadastre as an official register of the quantity and ownership of real estate. It is a tool of taxation, a text and test of apportionment and exaction. Black people were registered as property in the New World, but they were property that spoke, that wrote, that carried with them a cultural memory. As Césaire seized upon French to make from it a language of awesome rediscovery, so Alexander joins him at the parapets of his English. Césaire wanted to speak storms. He was, to borrow Charles Olson's term, an archeologist of morning who wanted to drive language to its primal capacities of nomination. So Alexander, echoing this time Return to My Native Land, writes: "I carry a central fascination with the scorching connective between meaning and sound, as if I were that first genetic concentration, magically naming stones from primeval eras" (Towards the Primeval 77-78).

There is a politics of such experiment, a politics that again registers the sense of the future anterior of African-American modernity. Where the rupture of the Middle Passage was intended to enforce a blanked slate, Alexander recovers the psychic history of African writings and language systems, the "seeds of Kemetic building and [End Page 414] writing" (Towards the Primeval 83). Before the postmodern, in Alexander's estimation, there was the post-Nubian to contend with:

Having absorbed elements of post-Nubian language, Ashurbanipal, king of Assyria, said of his capability, that he had been "initiated into the [books of the] omens of heaven and earth," and that he was "capable of deciphering word for word the stones inscribed before the deluge, which are hermetic, silent, muddled," language being a magic ledger which interacts with vacuums. (Towards the Primeval 74)

There is no denying the hermetic quality of much of Alexander's writing, but for him the common language of daily life is plagued with side effects taken for signs taken for wonders. His practice is an effort to reach another mode of linguistic being in the world. He has "emerged from hellish clashes with verbatim" and is now attempting a break with "the geography we've come to know as our anchor of perception, as our rational linkage with living" (Towards the Primeval 114). There is never a final break, as in acknowledging the linguistic geographies of our past we necessarily carry them forward into our future, but it remains a goal for Alexander to achieve "not the language of pedestrian exchange, but language charged as a means for moving the consciousness to the zone of 'interior liberation'" (Towards the Primeval 82).

This accounts in large measure for the vertiginous sense produced by reading Alexander's works, a sense underscored by the drawings that the poet places between the pages of his books. (I imagine these drawings closely resemble the neurons of the close reader being irrevocably altered by taking in the words of the book.) The drawings produce a parallel "dense visual grammar," as Alexander terms it in The Stratospheric Canticles (50), a grammar that organizes the visual and the phonetic along the imaginary axes of actual things. Despite the visual emphasis of the work, there is no mistaking the primarily semantic disordering of the senses that goes on here. Where the painting of Magritte offers noumenal landscapes, the writing of Will Alexander constitutes "a mirror of scratch paper sonnets" (Stratospheric 33). It is not exactly a mirror held up to nature, but it affords a glimpse of the "transmundane specific" (Stratospheric 4), and that is considerably more than will be found in any forty more widely hailed poets near millenium's end. In the end, newer poets such as Harryette Mullen, Will Alexander, Erica Hunt and others mark a transformed return to that post-Negritude space etched in the audible air of Stratospheric Canticles, a return, if such an untimely timely end is possible, to the fire next time:

yes
poetics
its force
jettisoned by "hypotaxis"
by . . . paratactic co-ordination
& f ire (36)

Aldon Lynn Nielsen" has authored several books of criticism and poetry, including Reading Race, Writing Between the Lines, Black Chant, C. L. R. James: A Critical Introduction, Heart Strings, Evacuation Routes, Stepping Razor, and Vext. He is now the Fletcher Jones Chairman of Literature and Writing at Loyola Marymont University.

Works Cited

Alexander, Will. The Stratospheric Canticles. Berkeley: Pantograph Press, 1995.

------. Towards the Primeval Lightning Field. San Francisco: O Books, 1998.

------. Vertical Rainbow Climber. Aptos, CA: Jazz Press, 1987.

Césaire, Aimé. Cadastre. Trans. Emile Snyder and Sanford Upson. New York: The Third Press, 1973.

------. Lyric and Dramatic Poetry 1946-1982. Trans. Clayton Eshelman and Annette Smith. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1990.

Cortez, Jayne. Somewhere in Advance of Nowhere. New York: Serpent's Tail, 1996.

Gabbin, Joanne. Sterling Brown: Building the Black Aesthetic Tradition. 1985. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1994.

Henry, Paget. "Fanon, African and Afro-Caribbean Philosophy." Fanon: A Critical Reader. Ed. Lewis Gordon, T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting and Renée White. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1996. 220-43.

Senghor, Léopold Sédar. The Collected Poetry. Trans. Melvin Dixon. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1991.

Thomas, Lorenzo. Chances Are Few. Berkeley: Blue Wind Press, 1979.

Vaillant, Janet G. Black, French, and African: A Life of Léopold Sédar Senghor. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990.

 

 


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J A C K E T   #   E L E V E N   |    A P R I L   2 0 0 0  

 



Linda Russo

Particularizing people's lives

(an interview with Joanne Kyger)


This piece is 6,500 words or about sixteen pages long.

 
 


On February 27, 1999, a pleasantly wintry Saturday afternoon - several feet of snow on the ground, sky only partly gray - Joanne Kyger, Christopher W. Alexander and I sat down to tea in the kitchen of our Buffalo apartment. At the time I was editing her EPC Author Page and thinking about the problems one encounters in addressing women writers of her generation, in which poetic production was mainly accomplished by men. Joanne had emerged - "arrived" as she was told at the Sunday Meetings - early on, was (and is) a prolific and complex poet, yet has remained relatively unknown. She'd given a reading at SUNY Buffalo with Ben Friedlander the previous Wednesday, for which there'd been a reception; and at a Friday night party for the publication of my chapbook, o going out, she'd initiated two collaborative projects - on the manual salmon-pink Olympia typewriter, a poem, and on four large sheets of paper and with her own portable water color kit, a collage. I think she was as curious about what was going on in Buffalo as we were about her and she was generous and energetic in the spirit of the time she'd spent in our company.

 
 

Linda Russo: I want back up a little bit, to something you'd mentioned earlier - that the so-called Beat Movement was more of a "newspaper phenomenon" than a "literary phenomenon."

Joanne Kyger: What did I say, more of "a cultural media phenomenon" than a "literary phenomenon." But I think that's true of a lot of literary movements. Writers are associated with one another, then they get a name or a handle on them afterwards, like the "Objectivists."

Linda Russo: The 'beat' origin myth has several stages, according to Ginsberg, but he gives primacy to Kerouac in conversation with John Clellon Holmes. But what you're saying suggests that the term 'Beat' didn't so much work to establish an aesthetic affinity between writers as to shape it and announce it to others - non-writers - as in a cosmetic production.

Joanne Kyger: Allen was a person who liked to grandstand. The writers he loved and was close to, he'd work very hard to get them published. I think he was as responsible as anyone else for turning it into a group of writers: here's Gary Snyder's poem, here's Philip Whalen's, here's Kerouac, here's Corso . . .

Linda Russo: And then there's the idea that the beat phenomena came from New York versus the idea that there was already something happening in the Bay Area when the Beats showed up.

Joanne Kyger: It was the Berkeley Renaissance, a group of writers around Robert Duncan, Jack Spicer, James Broughton and Robin Blaser that brought all those people together, through the 40s they had an established literary, cultural closeness and phenomenon. There was a cultural happening then with jazz and poetry, Ferlinghetti, Rexroth. Before Howl was published, the Six Gallery reading . . . but I don't think they were identified as beat writers at that moment, 1955-56. The Six Gallery sets off this group of writers, many of them met each other, Ginsberg meets Gary Snyder, Michael McClure.

 
 

Linda Russo: And the Philips Whalen and Lamantia.

Joanne Kyger: Who'd [Whalen] come down from Oregon. He and Gary were old roommates up at Reed College. This sparked a kind of energy. Later it was the publication of On the Road. It became a media phenomenon - the characters in it, and in the Dharma Bums became celebrities, and Howl being censored brought this more into the forefront, the laid back lifestyle of the "beatnik," a term coined by Herb Caen, became a cultural phenomena: the guy in the sandals, the bongo drums, beret, poetry and jazz, and this was opposed to the establishment, the guy in the gray flannel suit, Brooks Brothers.

[Jacket's note: On April 2, 1958, columnist Herb Caen of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote a column in which he created the term 'Beatnik.' The 'nik' suffix evoked Yiddish slang ("nudnik", etc.) but was actually borrowed from 'Sputnik,' a satellite that had just been launched by the Soviet Union, striking fear into the hearts of many Communist-fearing Americans.]
Linda Russo: And figuring out how women fit in, that's something that's been thought through only recently. In 1996 Brenda Knight's anthology, Women of the Beat Generation, made an attempt to bring women into the literary scene, to make them a presence. What did you think about how she went about doing this?

Joanne Kyger: It was just too general, there was some sloppy scholarship that was in there. Kristin [Prevallet's] article on Helen Adam - remember that?

Linda Russo: Yes. Apparently she [Brenda Knight] borrowed extensively from Kristen's scholarship. Hard to believe she'd do that since the Helen Adam archives are here in Buffalo, and Kristen was here, in Buffalo. Who would she be kidding?

Joanne Kyger: And including someone like Anne Waldman, who was what, 10? when the Beats were going on? I think it was just a way to say there were women doing something during that time who were not necessarily interesting writers except maybe for Diane DiPrima who is still a generation later. To consider the Beat phenomena of writing the way that Kerouac et al. started to define it, it was this group of Columbia guys, Burroughs, Kerouac, Ginsberg, who were hanging out together. And someone like Joan Burroughs, she was actually a writer . . .

Linda Russo: There's a more recent anthology A Different Beat: Writing by Women of the Beat Generation and yet again we have this same positioning of women who weren't "beat" necessarily.

Joanne Kyger: Lenore Kandel is early 60s . . . I think it's a way to put a bunch of women together that were not necessarily, or didn't personally consider themselves beat writers. "Beat" has just become a cultural word now.

Linda Russo: There's two definitions: "of the Beat generation" which is how these anthologies choose to talk about women who bear signs of being, contemporaneously or consequently, under the influence of beat aesthetics, and "Women who were Beats," as in women who wrote, lived in, and actively developed that milieu. Are there any women you would put in the latter category?

Joanne Kyger: How do you define what a 'beat writer' is?

Linda Russo: Well, that's the problem. There's the association of "women of the beat generation," which is a retrospective grouping. You get little sense of what it means, in terms of the poetry and the poetics that a 'group' produces, to be 'associated' with that group. Are associations aesthetic only? In terms of life- and writing-style?

Joanne Kyger: So if we say it's the women that were non-academics of the fifties . . .

Linda Russo: And that knocks out one of Knight's primary "Precursors," Josephine Miles, and raises questions about Denise Levertov's inclusion. The problem with anthologies is that any sense of real, material circumstance falls away, and there's this false aesthetic transcendence.

Joanne Kyger: But I don't see why the particular writing . . . I guess it's a way to access certain writers. It's useful to be part of the group, because then you can get a handle on the group of the moment in a book together. Someone like ruth weiss, I remember her coffeehouse readings from the fifties. Janine Pommy Vega, she comes along a little later but so did I.

Linda Russo: Right - and there's a parallel here between establishing aesthetic affinity - that moment of putting a book together, recognizing a group as a 'group' - and cosmetic production - the packaging of women, in this case, as products of the 'beat.' But how many of these women who are gathered under this grouping would select themselves to be of that movement?

Joanne Kyger: Hettie Jones certainly feels herself to be part of that movement, I've heard her speak of that.

Linda Russo: She co-edited the very important little magazine Yugen with the then-LeRoi Jones. Well actually she typed all of the issues, she's written explicitly of that - of the significance of that, along with paying for paper, offset printing, arranging for distribution, etc. - to the production of the magazine

Joanne Kyger: And Kay Johnson . . .

Linda Russo: There's Joyce Johnson, writing of her life with Kerouac in Minor Characters. Joan Kerouac wrote an article for Esquire called "Jack Kerouac is a sleazebag" or something like that.(1) One wonders why we glorify the beat era as fertile for women writers at all, except to somehow define them . . .
Note 1: It was actually an article for Confidential magazine, "My Ex-Husband, Jack Kerouac, is an Ingrate."
Joanne Kyger: Jan Kerouac, associated by proximity and style . . .

Linda Russo: And genealogy. But that's not an identification you would make?

Joanne Kyger: It's not useful to me. And also the beat writing at the time, the coffeehouse reading on Grant Avenue, what's it called . . . the Coffee Gallery, the Bread and Wine Mission, there's still Beatitude (2) that comes out, which was really a particularly politically inspired forum, but not very good poetry. My practice of writing was a lot stricter, coming from the energy of Spicer, and someone like Robert Duncan who was opposed to the tendency of Beat popular poetry writing - let it all dribble out . . .

 
 

Bob Kaufman at the Cafe Trieste
Note 2: Beatitude was first published in 1959 on the mimeograph machine at the Bread and Wine Mission on Grant Avenue by Bob Kaufman, John Kelly and others.

Photo (detail) of San Francisco beat legend Bob Kaufman in the Trieste coffee bar, by A.D.Winans, courtesy Larry Sawyer and Milk Magazine, on the Internet at http://www.milkmag.org/

 
 

Linda Russo: Would you compare it to the Poetry Slam? Very populist, people hanging out in bars, reading poetry to each other?

Joanne Kyger: Yes.

Linda Russo: Whereas, from what I know about the Magic Workshop and the Sunday Meetings at the Dunn's etc. it was more focussed on poetry as a structure, on the line, on words. It seems to be very different than an expressive/ excessive approach to poetry. You have a poem in Just Space where you talk about knowing the architecture of your lineage. Could you read it, and talk a little bit about it?

Joanne Kyger: Well, it's pretty straightforward. (reads):

          You know    when you write poetry    you find
        the architecture    of your lineage    your teachers
     like Robert Duncan for me   gave me some glue    for the heart
Beats      which gave confidence
                                         and competition
              to the     Images     of Perfection

          . . . or as dinner approaches     I become hasty
                   do I mean PERFECTION? (3)

Note 3: Just Space: Poems 1979-1989.
Black Sparrow Press. p. 105.

I think that's fairly straightforward.

Linda Russo: What was it about the Beats which gave confidence?

Joanne Kyger: Heart Beat - wasn't that the name of that book by Carolyn Cassady, about her multiple lives with Kerouac? Ginsberg's own sense of heart, of the family of poetry, although he was a terrible misogynist later, some of the women that he trusted became acceptable to him.

Linda Russo: What about "perfection"?

Joanne Kyger: I don't know what we mean by that - "images of perfection." I'm not sure what perfection means, obviously. Could you make a perfect dinner? What's perfect?

Linda Russo: What's interesting is the competition. Because that would imply an engagement with something - a politics, a person, an aesthetic - that you could argue with, that you might perhaps call "Beat" to set it aside from yourself.

Joanne Kyger: Beat was a period of history and until very recently nobody tried to make that a working historical phenomenon. I think Allen always was able to talk about his own history. Kerouac died in '68 and that ended a certain era. He certainly was the main writer of that time, the On the Road phenomena - the reprinting of his books in the last five or six years since the death of his wife, all his books were able to be reprinted - so people got interested again. Making up a literary history is the phenomena of looking back and trying to make a picture of a puzzle. So trying to ask someone now "what did you feel like then" - I didn't think about it in that way, I thought about it as a practice of my own writing that I was interested in, and certainly a lot of the ideas that came through the quote "beat generation" - I didn't call them the "beat generation." Gary Snyder's idea of opening Pacific Rim ideas, but there wasn't a Pacific Rim that anybody talked about then. A lot of it was Allen's idea of expanding consciousness, opening up the cultural avenues of what a writer can see and articulate, and maybe nobody had articulated this before, or seen this, or done this before. The whole Judeo-Christian world was not enough culturally . . . how do you see yourself, not as a religious idealist, but what are the acculturating generosities of Buddhism? What is the practice of looking at what your mind does? And it's certainly on the heels of that, the 60s phenomenon of taking LSD. That was a huge cultural phenomenon based a lot in some of the ideals of dropping out, living, or like Gary and the "rucksack revolution." If you want to be a writer, you don't have to be in the academy. What you want to do is make enough money at an ordinary job so you can do your own writing, that your friends are your audience, that you don't have to be in Kenyon Review. There is a life you can make as a writer that doesn't have to do with the academic tradition which was prevalent then. So it was the beginning of a kind of dropping out.

Linda Russo: In talking about the Beat generation maybe the stress should be on the idea of generation. What I hear you talking about mostly is the ideas that were beginning to circulate about consciousness, about approaching poetry in a different way, about approaching religion in a different way. The concept of "generation" is more important than a particular, "beat," identity. Would that be a helpful way to think about it?

Joanne Kyger: Maybe. I don't think people think about it, when you're leading your life, are you thinking about 'thinking' new ideas? You're thinking about getting along, and trying to find a way to express, to get your poetry out there, to read it to each other. But you're somewhat in an academic tradition right now in Buffalo, but I think, to veer away from trying to generalize, from trying to make a point of generation, to try and particularize peoples lives and pasts may be - would be - more useful for myself.

Black Mountain College had just broken up when I arrived in San Francisco; I was meeting people like John Wieners, Michael Rumaker, Ebbe Borregaard, all these people who had come from Black Mountain. They were closer to me as contemporaries than the Beat generation, who'd developed romantic kind of political ideals that Spicer couldn't stand, the whole sense of self propagation, self-advertising, where Ginsberg was out with his friends. Gary always had his own path, his scholarly practice, trainings in Japanese, practice of Buddhism, living with his teacher, so you can look at certain elements, but to generalize . . . And there was certainly a difference between the west coast, which was a lot less urban, and the people that were in New York City. No doubting that it was a great cultural stirring that was going on, the phenomena of painting and writing and jazz.

Linda Russo: Where were women inside this?

Joanne Kyger: There were very few women that set out to be independent thinkers. There was the beat chick. The "emancipation" of women and the hippie generation - yeah they were really emancipated - they stayed in the kitchen all the time, they wore long skirts, they did everything for the boys that they possibly could, and went to bed with them very easily, I'm sure that's emancipated!

Linda Russo: And they didn't wear bras.

Joanne Kyger: They didn't wear bras, right! [laughs]. I thought that was very free, but looking back at it I thought "that wasn't very free at all." So I think that was it, too, women tended to . . . I didn't find many women I could talk to in any interesting way. Women thought about being intellectually independent. That was a goal or an aim.

Linda Russo: In the Spicer biography [Poet be Like God, by Lewis Ellingham and Kevin Killian] there's a quotation from Dora Dull, that is, Geissler, in which she talks about attending the Sunday meetings but not reading because she was "with" Harold Dull.

Joanne Kyger: But also she didn't write very much. She's an old friend of mine. But nobody was . . . I came up from Santa Barbara where I studied with Hugh Kenner such as it was, I got a D in English from him [laughs]. I didn't know how to type papers, I was out on the edges, but I still was very interested in that. I hung out, I started the first literary magazine there, there was a sculptor, Mark DiSuviero, a contemporary of mine, we'd be fighting over each other's philosophy books, but I was very undisciplined, emotionally frayed and undisciplined. I wasn't a scholar in any way. And that's why when I went to San Francisco, and all these people were 22 and 23 years old, that was like my school. I needed out of the academy.

Linda Russo: Did you graduate?

Joanne Kyger: I ended up needing freshman biology, I couldn't memorize all that stuff. It never made any difference in the long run. So I was already interested when I came up to San Francisco in the literary phenomena.

Linda Russo: How did you know to be interested, how did you hear about it? Were you looking for something there?

Joanne Kyger: The Howl trial had started. I lived in North Beach, and I went eventually to work at Brentano's, I met Joe Dunn and John Wieners, and I read Howl, I thought it was just . . . nobody could be unaffected by the energy of it, it was wow. I was reading it with a friend of mine.

Linda Russo: How'd you meet John Wieners and Joe Dunn?

Joanne Kyger: North Beach was a small place. Have you ever been to San Francisco?

Linda Russo: A few times.

Joanne Kyger: Then you know that whole blocks-long/ Grant Avenue phenomenon. I only lived a few blocks away from The Place where it was all happening, so I met Joe Dunn, who said you need to speak to John Wieners, and there was this poetry group I went to.(4) I guess he'd been to Spicer's magic workshop the summer before. So it was easy. Ferlinghetti was doing poetry and jazz at The Cellar with Rexroth.
Note 4: i.e. the Sunday Meetings.

 
 

Kenneth Rexroth reading poetry to a jazz accompaniment, San Francisco, 1957


Kenneth Rexroth reading poetry to a jazz accompaniment, San Francisco, 1957


 
 


Linda Russo: How do you think the Duncan/Spicer group of people were affected by the Beats?

Joanne Kyger: Spicer didn't like Allen Ginsberg's work. When we went to hear him read Kaddish he made us all get up and leave. He said "do you like this stuff?" and I actually did, you know? But I went along. Then Ginsberg went down to Chile afterwards, and he told me he'd had nightmares about Spicer. He was put down. He was coming back to San Francisco with this open heart and everybody was snubbing him - "you wrecked the city! you brought all this beatnik publicity." That had nothing to do with us. There were greyhound bus tours going through North Beach, and a 'beatnik of the month' club.

Linda Russo: How were you affected by all this?

Joanne Kyger: I loved being part of the North Beach phenomena but then I had to go to work every morning, and got very stretched out, with late nights and taking dexedrine which was the drug of choice then if you could get it. So it got very stretched out for me during that time. But I needed to earn a living.

Linda Russo: Was this between 1957 and 1960?

Joanne Kyger: Yes, but it was kind of 'over.' I got there and everybody said "you missed it, it was last year." But I met this other phenomenon, Black Mountain and John Wieners, who got there in '57. Things started to get very unravelled. There started to be a lot of casualties. It got crazy. Joe Dunn got into methedrine, somebody got murdered . . . it kind of got messy.

Linda Russo: And then you went to Japan.

 
 

Joanne Kyger in Kyoto

 
 

Photograph of Joanne Kyger in Kyoto by Allen Ginsberg,
copyright © Estate of Allen Ginsberg, 2000.
Joanne Kyger: Yes. And I had friends there during that time that stayed there, but I think it was pretty much over by then, 1960. 1964-65 was when Jefferson Airplane and the Beatles arrived, and that was a whole other phenomenon. And someone like Richard Brautigan was there, and Ron Loewinsohn, and they were not especially Beat. But the cultural phenomena of what was happening in San Francisco was legitimate, I mean it was really there. It had a lot more to do with . . . the beatniks were part of it.

Linda Russo: Were there any women when you got there that had a reputation for being part of that scene?

Joanne Kyger: No there wasn't. Who was writing? Denise Levertov, she was being published, Black Mountain Review was out, I was very much reading Charles Olson's "Projective Verse" over and over and over again.

Linda Russo: You write that it "hit you like a wallop" in the Japan and India Journals. Did you get a copy while in Japan?

Joanne Kyger: I got it in '57 from Joe Dunn.

Linda Russo: And after your returned to San Francisco all of that was sort of codified, Olson being a major spokesman of the new in the New American Poetry. Where were you then, poetically?

Joanne Kyger: At the time of the Allen anthology? . . . I felt I had really assimilated "Projective Verse" somehow, which I needed - I needed a thoughtful, philosophic basis for where this new poetry was at. I remember at one of these meetings Robert Duncan saying to me (I was trying to figure out how to get the voice on the page) "I'm going to tell you about the line," and I thought "oh great" so the next time we went I said "are you going to tell me about the line?" [laughs]. And somehow I remember exactly we were at John Weiner's apartment, the second time we'd been there, and I remember just this view out the window by this radiator and his sort of looking at me, and he never said anything. I never got it, you know I never, whatever it was, was it arbitrary where you break the line, what is it, and there was Creeley's breath line, and John Wieners certainly had Billy Holiday's beautiful line. I guess probably it kind of rubbed off and finally through reading "Projective Verse" I understood there was a breath and physicality to the line.

Linda Russo: So most of your formative thinking that went into Tapestry and The Web was about the breath and the line through Olson and Creeley, Duncan and Wieners?

Joanne Kyger: I think Duncan's sense was allowing a certain ear to flow, it wasn't easy to get a sound like Robert Duncan unless you were into his whole romance of the household or maybe a mixture of dream. I don't know what rubbed off of Robert Duncan for me. Certainly Jack Spicer's sense of just "No Shit, it's gotta be true," whatever that meant, whatever the truth was, so any posturing that went on you certainly were going to get paid for in artificiality. And also this belief in this thing called The Poem: The Poem has an independent life of its own, you have to be true to The Poem. When Lew Welch came to San Francisco from Chicago he used to hate it because it was "The Poem" and we were always talking about this 'Poem' all the time. Lew was very much into Williams. It's a basic Williams sense of the word as being, the way you speak, your own cadence, being aware of that.

Linda Russo: What did Williams mean to you?

Joanne Kyger: He was my one of my great heroes. I think there was a lot of anxious energy for myself. I never sat down and read a lot of poetry. I always kind of flirted and hung out and tried to wrestle with writing it down and wasn't sure where it was all coming from. I studied some Pound and Williams in Santa Barbara. I was aware that Yeats was too dense and too difficult and his language was too foreign for me. Philip Whalen became a great mentor in the 50s for me, in 58-59 when he came out, said "just keep on writing, just keep on writing." But it was probably the early pieces that I read in these groups that were "Duncansy."

Linda Russo: Like the poem Duncan refers to in As Testimony, "The Maze"?

Joanne Kyger: That was the first time I really read a poem to the group and they said, "okay, you're in, you've made it, you've written a poem, you've come to a place where we accept this as writing." Of course it was kind of hard to reduplicate it, it's not like a formula, you know something that happens to you. And so since they had given that to me, that recognition, and helped me produce it, I think that's where, in terms of my own lineage, it comes from. Whereas someone like Ginsberg never was able to - I remember when he was in Japan, sitting down, giving him these poems that I had written, he started looking at them and "I don't know" - he didn't have a clue about what to say, he didn't connect to them, so it wasn't until I went back in '64 and Don Allen wanted to do a book of poetry that I realized I could be published. I went back to writing for Open Space and writing these Odyssey poems for Stan Persky's magazine. Robin [Blaser] was there then, and Robert Duncan and - Spicer. So they cultivated and printed my poems in Open Space. That gave me a writing voice. I never got it from Allen Ginsberg.

Linda Russo: One of the things I've been really drawn to in your work is your questioning of yourself, or your questioning of poetry, when you write sometimes "is this a poem" "am I a poet" and that willingness to openly question at the risk of looking insecure.

Joanne Kyger: After I came back to San Francisco, Spicer, who was always able to speak in a metaphorical sense, was talking about "The Maze" and asking "have you gotten out of the maze" and so a lot of this was written as a way of trying to get out of the maze. "I don't know if you've done it yet," I remember him saying to me, "have you really figured it out." And I didn't know whether I'd figured it out.

Linda Russo: Do you remember him asking the same question of other writers? Was it assumed that all young writers start out in a maze? And start out by questioning?

Joanne Kyger: No, Spicer used the specific language of the specific poem. Some of the poems were trying to figure it out - and I was able to write these new poems because I was back from Japan and a very active scene that started to happen, it was Open Space. Have you ever seen Open Space?

Linda Russo: Yes. I love the Don Allen parody, number 11, "The Penguin Anthology of Contemporary American Verse."

Joanne Kyger: So you could see it was very energetic in terms of 'right away,' you could publish something right away, and you had an immediate audience, and this was after being, for four years, in a sort of isolation about whether I was doing real writing, or who to write for.

Linda Russo: This was in '64 when you came back from Japan, and you were publishing in Open Space before this [The Tapestry and the Web] came out. How did you feel about publishing a book versus publishing in something like Open Space? Is it different?

Joanne Kyger: Of course. But the Open Space poems were all included in The Tapestry and the Web. Don Allen, who'd just published New American Poetry was the one who asked me for a manuscript so I felt at that point that I had arrived in a certain way because he was like a real cultural editor/ icon by that point. Although I wasn't included in the first New American Poetry, I was in the later Penguin edition of it published the next year in England. And Spicer and Duncan were both people who stressed a lot that you shouldn't publish until you're ready and it was important not to publish a lot of junk. But I remember when Old Angel Midnight came out, the great piece of Kerouac's, in Big Table, and I remember Duncan turning to Spicer, "maybe we should jump on this bandwagon." I could tell they were excited by this piece of writing, and thought maybe we should just drop our cultural warfare with these Beat writers who're trying to take over the scene. The phenomena of Open Space and White Rabbit, you have your own small coterie of like-minded writers and readers. You're not going to sell yourself out by trying to go for this other culturally scurrilous audience and publishers.

Linda Russo: So where does Don Allen fit into all of this?

Joanne Kyger: Stan Persky turned on Don Allen and did that parody of New American Poetry. Gary had come back and Stan was working as a bartender at the Anxious Asp then and Gary was coming over to defend Don Allen's honor and went over and punched him out behind the bar, that was part of all these wonderful "wars" that were going on, and especially with someone like Stan who loved to stir the pot.

Linda Russo: And this as a sort of backdrop to your assembly of Tapestry?

Joanne Kyger: Yes, getting this book together was an important step. Mostly the mss. was almost finished. At this time Gary and I had separated. When I left Japan our relationship essentially had ended and it took me a little time to . . .

Linda Russo: It's a beautiful book, very beautifully done, and it's held up well.

Joanne Kyger: The cover was done in an unstable dyes. And there's that one page, the second illustration by Jack Boyce, that was supposed to be a full page, bleed out to the edges, that was a mistake, I mean this would've looked great if it was a full page.

Linda Russo: This book came out right before Spicer died?

Joanne Kyger: '65. A lot of poems I wrote while I was in Japan, keeping the Odyssey as a kind of framework; some of these I wrote before.

Linda Russo: You mention in an interview [in Occident], I think you were referring to the Odyssey poems, that it was the first story that you felt you could get inside of . And once inside there's an insistent working over of how stories, in epics, get told. How did that get in there?

Joanne Kyger: Well it was the oldest narrative one could find to think of your life as history, as a story, and narrative always interests me.

Linda Russo: My sense is more that you criticize Penelope, you're very critical of her behavior.

Joanne Kyger: Is she being true or not, or who is - take a step back and, well, you know.

Linda Russo: The 'myth' reveals itself as not fact, but as 'open'? You write "I think she's happy now, her household is restored, and she knows he'll die an old and comfortable death." Then he tells her to go up to her room and wait a while, and she does what he says . . .

Joanne Kyger: Oh sure, oh sure. [laughs]

Linda Russo: And then the poem says "I guess it's good to know where you're going." Your revisionism displays a feminism of sorts, but what you were doing preceded the feminist poetic project of 're-vision' - stepping into female characters and "taking back" myth. What were your influences?

Joanne Kyger: Robert Duncan certainly incorporates some of that thinking. These texts were accessible - Robert Graves' Greek mythology was out - these were books that were there.

Linda Russo: What role did Gary Snyder play in those years?

Joanne Kyger: Gary was generous to a certain point. I remember him saying to me once "I don't know, you're 29, it might be too late for you" [laughs]. And so certainly aware that his group of writers, his friendships, were a very male-bonded group, and there wasn't any room for women to be in there. Although it would've have been nice to have been. Except for Philip [Whalen], who was always very responsive to anything I said. We were in correspondence back and forth a lot, he was always very supportive. And in some ways there's a certain amount of competition between two writers in the same household too.

Linda Russo: It was when you came back to San Francisco that things started happening for you?

Joanne Kyger: I was back with my old friends who were excited about my writing. It was a very different from Japan. I had met Jack Boyce then and I was starting a new relationship. I'd left Gary Snyder, I'd separated when I realized he really wanted to continue on in Japan and immerse himself in Japanese culture. It was too isolating for me, and he had his own particular Zen practice, at that time you had to know Japanese to be able to do it, it wasn't an open practice like it is now, although things were starting to open up. It was still very culturally isolating for me, I was taller than everybody else, and the manners were so different. I was capable of disagreeing, no Japanese woman would ever do that - ever!

Linda Russo: You modeled didn't you? And weren't you in a movie?

Joanne Kyger: Yes. Several movies. They needed an actress. They made a lot of B-movies there. Gary and I were in a movie together, we went to Ryo-an-ji. I was in this Yokahama bar scene of meji period and I was supposed to sing this song, and the guy was hiding his head, I couldn't tell if he was crying or what. I never got to see a lot of them. Another was a gangster movie. It was a sort of fun. I only saw one movie, when I was a nun.

Linda Russo: Do you remember the title?

Joanne Kyger: It was in Japanese. I had Japanese lines I had to say, I don't remember the title. It was always very hokey, and they showed my hair even though no nun would show her hair, so there's this little blonde hair sticking out of the front - no shaved head.

Linda Russo: The flying nun had hair.

Joanne Kyger: Yeah, right.

Linda Russo: One thing you mention in your journals, and even in the poems, is meditating - "maybe I'll think about meditating." How did the idea of resistance come into being into Japan, going there, having to be married. How did you feel about that?

Joanne Kyger: Gary took his practice of Buddhism very seriously and he wasn't interested in how Philip and myself got there. If you get to Japan by yourself I'll help you once you're there. He was a very committed person, very strict on himself, very disciplined, so his whole practice was very important to him. At one point, he's written himself, he said his teacher told him he can't be a poet and a practicer of Zen too, and later he said no, that it was the other way around. He had his own particular rigorous practice, getting up at 3 or 4 in the morning to see his teacher at the monastery, a beautiful, beautiful traditional Japanese temple and monastery. But the whole role of where women were at, and men, it was very different.

Linda Russo: Why'd you go?

Joanne Kyger: I wanted to study Zen, and I wanted to go there. Gary and I'd had this year long correspondence and I needed to find out something about the world and life, whatever it is.

Linda Russo: At one point early in the journals you talk about writing to Nemi and telling her to come to Japan, or telling her that she has to leave San Francisco . . .

Joanne Kyger: Well there was this drug culture going on down, and a lot of methedrine, and I think later on she had this boyfriend, an old friend of John Wieners, and they got into a fight and he stabbed her in the belly and she was in the hospital, and later this guy who was in the apartment jumped out the window and paralyzed himself. It was similar to the end of the Haight-Ashbury scene. A lot of bad drugs were going around, it was a real burn-out phase.

Linda Russo: I want to talk about your scandalous Ted Berrigan poem in All This Every Day, which you wrote when you were in New York? (5)
Note 5: "Earlier"

Into the party, with engraved invitation, I am bored when
I realize the champagne in the decrepit bowl is going to get
filled up a lot. Well then, on the greens in front of the
Mansion are walking Tom Clark and Ted Berrigan, what chums!
Do you think I could possibly fall in step, as they turn same
to far flung university on horizon, gleaming. You bet your
life not. The trouble, says Ted, with you Joanne, is that
you're just not intelligent enough.

           from All This Every Day, Big Sky, 1975
Joanne Kyger: In Bolinas. This was actually a dream. When I read it at a reading Ted Berrigan shouted out "that's not true."

Linda Russo: When did you meet Berrigan?

Joanne Kyger: After I returned to San Francisco and married Jack Boyce in '65 we went to Europe for nine months. I was brought up on the west coast and I'd been to Japan and India and I needed to see what my Atlantic-crossing roots were all about. So we stayed in New York for little over a year, and that's when I met Anne Waldman. I met Ted at the '65 [Berkeley] poetry conference when he came out. I met Lewis Warsh at St. Mark's. But I didn't like New York City, I'm not a very urban person.

Linda Russo: Did you meet Alice Notley then?

Joanne Kyger: No. Ted was married to Sandy. I met Alice after she came out with Ted later on, she came up to Bolinas.

Linda Russo: How did you come to live in Bolinas?

Joanne Kyger: I was still married to Jack Boyce. It was part of the whole scene of the '60s to get out of the city and go live in the country. He had inherited some money and wanted to buy some land and build a house. So we looked a lot up and down the coast for places to start. Bolinas at that time was still very small, 500 people, a small little town that had been established in the last century. My friend Bill Brown was living there, who edited Coyote's Journal with Jim Koller during the '60s so I kept visiting him. You could buy 40 acres and homestead it yourself, and build up a whole life, but I realized I needed more than one other person. It was hard to know how to live there; there weren't any jobs - but it was part of the 'dropping out.' There weren't a lot of houses then; subsequently some got built, until there was a water moratorium. But it felt like people were really intense . . . just great.

Linda Russo: What about your friends? neighbors?

Joanne Kyger: The Creeleys moved there shortly after, Don Allen was there, and many, many more. So there was enough of a locus of writers to be highly charged.

 


 
J A C K E T  # 11 
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Woman with Guitar:  Memphis Minnie's Blues


"Woman with Guitar is...a vivid portrait of a talented singer and guitarist. But it is much more than this... By an imaginative application...Paul and Beth Garon unpeel the layers of meaning in the themes and motifs of her lyrics. . . The authors have added a new dimension to blues scholarship." Paul Oliver

"Woman with Guitar is a delight. The book is both thorough and brilliant, a rare combination these days. It is wide ranging and supported by astonishingly diverse and wise readings into psychoanalysis, feminism and Black studies. . . " David Roediger


* * *

(An excerpt from Woman With Guitar: Memphis Minnie's Blues)

At the dawn of the new decade, Minnie's popularity was hardly on the wane. Minnie, now with Son Joe, continued to work at the 708 Club at 708 E. 47th St., where they were often joined by Big Bill, Sunnyland Slim, or Snooky Pryor. The 708 was a favored hangout, recalled fondly by Pryor, who remembered that "it used to be right side of Montgomery Ward. Memphis Slim, he used to play there," and Pryor's partner, Moody Jones, remembered seeing Minnie at the 708 Club, too. The 708 was Minnie and Son's "home club," to the extent that they had one, and it was the tavern most frequently mentioned by Minnie and Son's compatriots.

But Minnie played at dozens of the better known (and better paying) night-clubs, from the Music Box and Club DeLisa to Martin's Corner, Gatewood's Tavern, and the White Elephant (Don's Den). Minnie and Memphis Slim played together at Gatewood's, especially when Big Bill was out of town, and she often played across the street from the White Elephant. As likely as not, she was joined by local musicians like Homer Harris or James "Beale Street" Clark; (the latter's home became the new rehearsal hall when Tampa Red "went nutty" after his wife died). Minnie was a regular participant in Chicago's blues milieu, a hard drinker who played just as hard. One night, she, Son Joe, and Sunnyland got drunk together, and in the wee hours of the morning, Sunnyland staggered home. The next day, and after a good, recuperative slumber, he went over to Little Brother Montgomery's. Lee Collins was there, and so were Minnie and Son, still partying! They hadn't been to bed since Sunnyland left them.

Son Joe, Minnie and Roosevelt Sykes occasionally played the midnight show at the Indiana Theatre, just as they played at the Square Deal and The Flame. While most singers had regular gigs at certain clubsfor Minnie, the 708 and Sylvio's like most blues artists, she played at dozens of clubs with scores of colleagues. As Jimmy Rogers put it, after patiently explaining that he had seen Minnie playing in the basement at 31st and Indiana, as well as on the North side, "we was all around playing the blues in Chicago."

Poet Langston Hughes saw Minnie play at the 230 Club, and he was impressed enough to devote his entire Chicago Defender "Here to Yonder" column for January 9, 1943 to the occasion: ". . . Memphis Minnie sits on top of the icebox at the 230 Club in Chicago and beats out blues on an electric guitar. . ." Drummer Jump Jackson was with Minnie on the same job. "I worked with Memphis Minnie. I remember we was on, the little club at 51st and Prairie, way up on top of a icebox. Just drum and guitar. She had that place packed. You know those walk-in coolers? I said, 'Minnie, gee, I'm gonna work this week out, but I can't take this! I'm gonna fall and break my neck here.' They had a banister up there but if you'd fall against it, you'd go right through that thing. Fall right down on the people."

Disc jockey Big Bill Hill used to host a "cocktail party" that moved from club to club on Sundays: From the 708 Club to the Du Drop Lounge to Sylvio's to the Blue Flame. But there were other, more famous, parties for Chicago blues singers, and these were hosted by Memphis Minnie. These Blue Monday parties often took place at Ruby Lee Gatewood's, Big Bill's Lake Street home base. The parties were well attended and recalled with great pleasure, and Minnie herself memorialized them in her "Daybreak Blues"


 

Come daybreak in the morning,
I'm gonna take the dirt road home.
Wooo, soon daybreak in the morning,
I'm gonna take the dirt road home.
'Cause these Blue Monday blues is 'bout to kill me,
sure as your born.

Well, this man pitches a party, every first of the week,
I can't cross the floor for other people's feet.
Come daybreak in the morning, etc.

Well, I went to my kitchen, intendin' to eat a bite.
The table was crowded from morning till night.
Come daybreak in the morning, etc.

Spoken: All right, Little Son Joe. Yes, I know. Keep on playing. I'll come home.

Hey, now I turned around, aimed to go to bed,
There's four at the foot and six at the head.

Come daybreak in the morning, etc.


As Brother John Sellers recalled, "Memphis Minnie...really those Blue Monday parties in those days were too much. . . ! With all her greatness and her songs and her Blue Monday parties that she gave, she was...a singer to be remembered." Said J. B. Lenoir, "[Minnie] used to give cocktail parties, you knowthose Blue Monday parties at the Gate, you know, and I actually found she would ask me to play a number for her."


* * *

There is nothing wrong with seeing the blues singer as someone who plays while she works, as long as we understand that she also works while she plays. But beyond that, the blues singerand Minnie is especially exemplary hereprefigures and prepares the dialectical resolution of the two. The abolition of work is the first big step toward the realization of poetry and freedom.

Minnie's attitude toward "the abolition of work" provides a fitting and emblematic closing for our study:


 

Interviewer: When she would visit you in Walls, was she ever interested in working, like on the farm, or. . .

Daisy: I never knowed her to go to a field, did you Ethel? [laughter]

Ethel: Naw. [laughter] Now, she would go out in the field and pick tomatoes and come home and cook 'em. Now, I don't know what she did before I knowed her.

Daisy: She didn't work then either! [laughter]

Ethel: She would really go out in the fields and pick tomatoes, and she loved to cook tomato dumplings.

Daisy: She was a good cook.

Ethel: Sweet tomato dumplings. And she would go out, and say, "Don't you all cut those tomatoes up." And she would cook, make the best tasting dumplings and every thing. But she not going to chop no cotton and pick no cotton. She stayed at the house. 'Kid' loved to cook, but she sure didn't do nothing else. . . much. [laughter] She'd stay here and practice on her songs.

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pattismith2.jpg

Patti Smith

is a genuine phenomenon.

 

 

Now in her mid-fifties, and with two teenaged kids, Smith has lost nary an ounce of the unequaled intensity and passion that's been on display since her classic 1975 debut, Horses, made her a rock n roll legend. She has a new album, Land that will be released this spring, and her previous album, Gung Ho, is right up there with the best of her seventies work. The fervor in songs like "Lo and Beholden" and "Glitter in Their Eyes" would be astonishing for someone 30 years her junior.

Though Smiths energy and presence are ageless, they don't come from having traveled an easy road. If anything, Smith has undergone more hardships than any mere mortal could be expected to handle. In the span of a few years, she lost her best friend (photographer Robert Mapplethorpe), her husband (Fred "Sonic" Smith of the MC5), her brother, and close friends Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs. Yet through it all she fights on, even maintaining some semblance of optimism. In the beautiful acoustic number "Farewell Reel," the song that closes 1996's Gone Again, Smith sings, "And God only knows / We're only given / As much as the heart can endure." The song, dedicated to Fred, shows the heart of a fighter and philosopher.

Forgive me if I gush a little, but there are very few heroes left in the world, and even fewer in rock n roll. Patti Smith is one of the most inspiring people most of us could ever hope to come in contact with. And yet her most impressive feat is that though she has associated with the likes of Ginsberg, Burroughs, Dylan and the Dalai Lama, she puts on no airs. You're more likely to find her doing laundry than riding in a limo.

You did a live Webcast recently. What was that like from your perspective?

It was unnatural. (Well, not that performing is ever really natural.) Part of what we do as a band is to break as many barriers as possible: I'll never ignore what's going on; I'll never try to pretend things aren't happening. We were in an unnatural setup. There were five huge TV cameras, all these bright lights, I could see all of the audience there's no mood-setting thing. We were trying to do a little video at one point. Clive Davis was in the audience. It was not your normal meeting at the Bowery Ballroom. There were a lot of unnatural elements. But they're still human elements. So it was interesting to see where these new invaders would take us. It's just like another episode of The X-Files or something. I thought it was a very interesting world; a sense of humor was absolutely essential.

Did you get a chance to see what the Webcast looked like afterwards?

Yeah. I thought it was pretty cool. It was funny. It looked like what it was. I only saw bits of it on a laptop, and it looked pretty raw, as it was. What did you think?

It was a really good show. It was different. From the audience perspective it's hard to get into a show with all the lights on the same way you would without all the lights on. When you're at a rock show the house lights aren't supposed to be on.

But I still believe all things are interesting, even the fact that our band and our people were entering into this (in some ways) self-consciously moving event. We stuck together and we spar together. And I think it was okay. I mean a lot of things in life are humiliating. Everybody has times in their life where they feel like a jerk, where they feel uncomfortable, where they're forced to perform in a really unnatural situation. And I think it's sometimes important to let people see that, because I want people to see what it's like to go through a lot of the same things from my perspective. Because I do go through them. I have a lot of confidence. I have certain gifts. I have a lot of vision. But sometimes I'm on stage and I feel really stupid or I'll feel really awkward. Or I just don't feel good and I can't move right, or the sound is really bad and I can't sing very good or I just get, like, weirded out by some spirit or something. But it's just human stuff.

I've never really liked how within the rock n roll arena they sort of canonize people, not because of their work but because of the externals. But I think the rawness and all of the human aspects of performance have to be preserved. And I think that we've gotten so technical and we have the ability to use tapes, to lip sync in a supposedly real live performance, or have so many costume changes, or so many lights, or so many effects that the actual human core of things is sometimes lost. Some of the really street revolutionary energy is sometimes lost.

If this is not too personal, could you talk about how much having writing and music and your art has really helped you overcome all the losses in your life?

Well I think work on any level helps people when they're going through a grieving process. It's good to work. I just think that work is important for human beings. It's good to be productive, whether it's gardening, writing or whatever one pursues as their work. But I think really the most important thing is, again, human interaction friends reaching out to help you, saying one's prayer, staying in communication, because it's very easy to go into some really dark, unhealthy cocoon. And unless one wants to have a Victorian death, if one loses a loved one and sort of expires in the wake of one's loved one, it's important to get back on your feet and accept the help of others.

When I've had difficult times...only a couple of months after I had lost my husband and my brother, Allen Ginsberg came out of the blue. I hadn't seen him in a while and he said, "Come out and work. Get up out of bed and come out and work, work for others. Do something charitable." So he got me involved in the Tibetan situation, which I had always been concerned about. He got me on my feet.

I met Oliver Ray and he got me working. Lenny Kaye pursued me to work. And even Bob Dylan, who I didn't really know that well, called upon me to go on a tour with him. I spoke to him privately and he said, "Come back to work, the people need you. I think really accepting the help of others is a very important thing. It's sometimes more of an effort to accept help than not. But if you're gonna give help, you have to learn to accept it as well.

How much influence does your environment have on your writing?

When I was in Michigan for 16 years, my principal duty as a human being was as a wife and mother. And so a lot of my time went into my daily tasks as a wife and mother. So the way that I worked was very specific, instead of indulging myself in any writing at like four in the morning if I felt like it or sitting around with books all day. I found more specific time frames, like when the children were sleeping.

For me it's a matter of work ethic. I think that if one is given a gift, one has a responsibility to the gift. And it's fun to sort of live a bohemian lifestyle. Which I'm always sort of a bohemian, it's just the way that I am. But it's not necessary to creation. What's necessary to creation is motivating one's self, acknowledging your responsibility to your gift, and developing a work ethic.

Artists have the same responsibility as a person who has to work a nine-to-five job or any kind of person that has to do their work. An artist has a responsibility to himself and should be able to draw from himself and do his work regardless of his environment.

Genet had to write his books in prison on toilet paper and had to hide it. Anne Frank writing her diary in hiding there's all different ways that people have had [to] create. And I found really that it doesn't come from living a romantic lifestyle and smoking pot all day. It just comes from within and it comes from a lot of practice. Being a performer and doing a record is work. It's hard work

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Velvet goldmine

A classically trained viola player, John Cale took career advice from Bernstein and Copland before fetching up at the Factory with Warhol, Nico and Lou Reed. Now, with some extraordinary new music and a headlining spot at Glastonbury, the creative force behind the Velvet Underground tells Ed Vulliamy why he feels like a traitor to his native country

Friday May 23, 2003
The Guardian

Velvet Underground and John Cale
'So much older then, younger than that now': John Cale, with fellow Velvets (top) and as he is today
 
John Cale says of his time with the Velvet Underground that he wanted, then, a life without brakes or a break, as though they were days of youth gone by. But the truth is that Cale never stops.

He never stops churning material - be it sentient, political or intellectual - around the miasma of his head; he barely pauses for breath during his daily rounds from the studio to the subway, to the trattoria, to the gym, into deep cyberspace, to the squash court, to the subway again and then back to the studio again. And Cale never stops writing music.

The music that John Cale is about to unleash is probably the most radical he has ever written, certainly the most ingenious and arguably the best (including the Velvets); it is an ethereal sound, broadcast from some distant planet, and this time a haunted one.

It does three interesting things at once: it stretches that unsettling, time-warping drone of his days with the Velvet Underground to some new, outer limit; it is the culmination of Cale's solo career, and it also rejoins and resurrects something quintessential and deeply personal that Cale began before he was joined by Lou Reed et al.

The music - on an EP out this month, with an album later in the year - is a reminder that Cale, not Reed, was the creative joker in the pack of New York's underground, jester at the court of Andy Warhol. It recalls also that Cale was the coal miner's son from the Welsh valleys among a coterie of rather self-regarding Americans, who had played classical viola and made music his life, long before he ever picked up an electric guitar.

And it recalls that Cale is an artist more than a rock star, a maker of modern music that is dangerous, playful, intense, heartfelt and so highly informed that it makes the rock'n'roll ersatz paraded by many of those he has worked with look silly.

I've had the honour and pleasure of keeping an irregular tradition of lunch with Cale; we meet at a favourite Italian joint staffed by football fanatics, on the sidewalk when it is pleasant, for a plate of mozzarella or salted spinach, and a bowl of pasta.

One of Bob Dylan's great lines is "I was so much older then, I'm younger than that now" - and this is what John Cale looks like this day, aged 62, physically fit with restless eyes and a puckish, mischievous face.

Maybe being with Cale is not unlike listening to his music, only much funnier. There is that same animation, that same range of reference points somewhere out there - a range nowhere more eclectic that in his latest work, which quotes from literature, the New York subway, the street, Afghanistan, the rugged roads of the hills around Rome and those in his own head.

We hardly ever discuss music. Cale prefers to remember some joke about "fornication being a basically vertical experience" in Welsh car parks during his youth, or else talk about what he found that morning on his favourite internet website, called "Cryptome", like Cale, a jackdaw cruising for trinkets among the world's intelligence communities.

"Artificial Intelligence" is the title of one of Cale's great albums, and the world of intelligence is one of Cale's favourites and least favourites. "Don't believe most of what is out there," he counsels.

It is a fascination, he explains, with origins in his Welsh childhood (like most of Cale's fascinations): secrecy over reports by "Her Majesty's Inspectorate for Schools, so that parents couldn't find out which was the best school for their child" and lies about toxic chemical leakages into a popular swimming hole in the Amman river, which caused polio.

"I realised early on that secrecy is based on a lot of nonsense. That you have to learn to read patterns until you understand things. If I get a book on medicine, I will read it and read it and read it until it becomes clear and sinks in."

Then Cale will switch, over a double espresso, to some nugget about the oil industry he gleaned either by scouring the web or from his mosaic of friends, which spans the World Bank, the avant-garde film industry, Indian squash players, high and low finance, art dealers, political think-tank researchers - oh, and the music business, but you wouldn't know.

"Look at this! - it's from a journal called Hydrogen Economy, some analyst, Jeremy Rifkin - he's calculated the life of Iraqi oil reserves compared to its global rivals. Here: US and Norwegian reserves would last 10 years at current levels of consumption and extraction; Canada only eight, Iran 53, Saudi Arabia 55, the United Arab Emirates 75, Kuwait 117 - and Iraq: 526 fucking years! That's what the Americans are doing - they've been planning this for years."

Of course, of late, there'll be talk of the war, which has exercised - not to say obsessed - Cale. "It has sickened me. I was just incensed. It was a confirmation that there was not going to be any let up on my disappointment with the road the United States is going down. America was a place of great generosity, and I'm a product of that generosity, but now America has turned back on its origins; and you realise the extent of the corruption at the foundations of this country."

The television set in his new apartment in Greenwich Village is never switched off; neither is his computer. Cale's life, like his songs, is permanently carpet-bombed with information. And Cale will need to discuss some book he has just finished, and sometimes make a gift of a copy. Harvard and the Education of an American Terrorist was a recent hit, about the background and methods of the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski. There's likely to be an article to recommend from a political journal - lately, a lot of stuff about former Soviet central Asia.

And all this in a Welsh accent that sounds not unlike the strings of Cale's viola, and rings as though he had left the valleys yesterday, not 40 years ago. Now, however - both in terms of musical texture and theme - Cale's origins have never been so important to his work.

Cale was born in March 1942 in Garnant, between Swansea and Carmarthen (a week after Lou Reed had arrived in the world via Brooklyn), son of a miner and school teacher. "Working in the mines is a soul-destroying job. My father never stood a chance. He had come from Taff's Well, from an English-speaking home. My mother was Welsh and he moved into her house, where my grandmother on my mother's side banned the use of English - only Welsh could be spoken. She dealt me the same card, and that did a number on my head. What it did" - and suddenly Cale finds an anger he usually reserves for his political adversaries - "is it drove me away from the Welsh language. I speak it and love listening to it, but all that really did my head in. It was one of the reasons I had to get out."

There was a place to hide from the language hex: learning. In the Welsh tradition of the time, children never visited each other's homes (for fear of exposure to evaluation and envy) and Cale had no close friends of his own age.

But he was taken under the wing of a Methodist preacher, the Rev Davies, who encouraged him to aim for university. Cale accordingly, "really liked school, I liked learning." He made it to grammar school, and decided he wanted to be a conductor. Music, says Cale, was the language that transcended Welsh and English, "a comfort I found nowhere else... Music gave me a stronger sense of who I was".

Cale became a child who fought gang fights, robbed the preacher's daughter of her virginity after choir practice, read Das Kapital ("the earliest sign that obsessiveness was creeping into my character") and was glued to the BBC Third Programme, listening to Schoenberg and Stockhausen.

"The viola came to me by sheer chance," he recalls. "It was the only instrument left" in the school orchestra, "and I found that I could play it". As the family hit crisis after crisis through his mother's breast cancer, the death of a favourite uncle, the collapse of another, Cale "retreated into the luxury of my interior universe, which was filled with music". And there, albeit now in much greater harmony with the outer world, Cale has remained.

Cale's road to America was via Goldsmith's College, London, a meeting with Aaron Copland and winning a Leonard Bernstein scholarship to the prestigious Berkshire Music Centre at Tanglewood, Massachusetts. Once in New York, Cale famously changed gear; his pieces composed at Tanglewood "were too violent", and, after consulting Bernstein himself, he cashed in his return ticket to London for the deposit on a loft apartment.

Most of what happened next is well recorded: pairing up with Lou Reed, friendship with Andy Warhol and Nico, and the adventures of a remarkable band through an odyssey of musical innovation, heroin, alcohol, and eventual fragmentation in acrimony.

The personal issues are perhaps best summed up in two remarks - on Warhol: "Real friends are hard to find in New York, and Andy was one I knew for 20 years." And on Lou Reed, following the funeral of bass player Sterling Morrison, who died of cancer (Cale's car had been caught in traffic and he was worried he would miss Reed's oration. But his erstwhile friend had not even bothered to turn up): "I realised," said Cale, "what a friend I had lost in Sterling Morrison, and what a friend I had not lost in Lou Reed."

But the more compelling issues were actually musical, not personal. There were, audibly, two or more Velvet Undergrounds. There was that strange, spectral sound - the "drone" - and there was the pre-punk adrenalin. Loosely speaking, the first was Cale, the second was Reed. The band was renowned for its long improvisations, recalls Cale, "because we hated playing the same thing every night. We needed to have a piece that would allow us to let off steam.

But then there were the psychological reasons; improvisation became a bolt hole - Sterling would come up. Then I would come up, then Lou would come up - and we extended the stuff until we weren't a band at all. If you are separate, you don't have to put up with each other."

Cale's solo career is also well documented, both as songwriter/performer and as producer for Patti Smith, Nico and others. The oeuvre is like an autobiography, both in lyrics and sound - from the iconoclastic Vintage Violence through the lachrymose Artificial Intelligence to the searing, crashing rush of Sabotage Live.

You can feel Cale progress towards and through a point in his life in 1989 when the booze and the drugs came to an abrupt end, with the birth of his daughter, Eden. "I looked at her and said to myself: 'If I carry on like this, I'll miss the best years of your life.' I had lost my sense of humour. I wasn't having any fun any more. I said to myself: 'How the hell did it get to this? You've got all these records, so how the hell did you get here ?' " So he stopped doing drink and drugs. "I stopped the lot, and wondered: 'What's the most taxing sport you can think of? Squash. OK, go and play that twice a week.'"

Musically, Cale's gear-shift took him back to "whatever is familiar. I thought, 'I'll go back to classical music and see what's there.' That's what happens in these situations: you go back to what's familiar." He began work on an opera around the character of Dylan Thomas's umbrella, which accompanied the writer from place to place, meeting WH Auden, from bar to bar to bar. It didn't work, explains Cale, because Thomas's poetry "has its own internal noise system" with which he didn't wish to interfere.

Before the Velvets, Cale recorded an experimental album called Sun Blindness Music - long experiments in sound and time, influenced by John Cage. The viola had gone, but not the "classical" training, now applied to what Cale calls "the things we have to understand about what time and sound do to our senses".

This was the sound which, converted to guitar and a rock band, was diverted by the Velvet Undergound, and which Cale has been gradually returning to ever since. With his new music, he entwines it all through working with technology and what he calls "the organic entity" of music "at that particular moment" while improvising in the studio.

There is a fair comparison to draw between what Cale has done and Radiohead's progression from the unrelenting edge of The Bends to the remote, other-worldly universe of Kid A or Amnesiac. As with that of Radiohead, Cale's new work has what he calls "a floating quality; it's a haunted place, I suppose". And such music brings Cale back, by necessity, to the viola.

Cale once wrote: "I've no business in rock 'n'roll. I've said it over and over, I'm a classical composer, I'm not a rock'n'roll musician - I'd love to conduct a Brahms or Mahler cycle." He gives a little shrug when this is quoted back at him, adding: "I love rock'n'roll."

But there is this: "All that stuff I couldn't do on the viola I'm doing now. After all that time when people were just not interested in hearing the instrument, I'm pursuing it. I'll be working on a song like this thing I've got called Twilight Zone. And I'm not fooling around - this is a six-part string arrangement, and it's carnivorous. I tried to put a guitar on it, but it just didn't survive the experience. The viola was too vengeful. But there are traps," he adds.

"You can easily end up just being a techno guy if you're not careful. You have got to have some humanity in there." And so what Cale brings into this parallel universe is what he calls "chatter". It is a hallmark of modernism: injection of vernacular or the burlesque sounds of life - kitsch indeed - into music.

Cale describes the mood of one new song as "cloying" - a song called E is Missing, the "E" being Ezra Pound. In a way, this is the most important, on the EP at least. "Your fingernails are missing / There's ink all over the place," it goes. "What I mean is there is blood all over the place," explains Cale.

The song about Pound deals with one of the most erudite masters of "chatter" in the history of poetry. "Pound is full of chatter," says Cale, "multilingual chatter, extremely learned and elitist". But the song has greater significance. Cale says that "I try to get away from literal things. I'm not so concerned to write about events, as what the events evoke beyond their time."

E is Missing addresses, indirectly, a period of history Cale devours at the moment, the armistice in Italy, when Pound - having defected to fascism - was taken by American troops and imprisoned. "It was a time when the partisans were wreaking their revenge, and everyone was wreaking their vendettas on everyone else." It is a song about a traitor.

Cale says he is "still fascinated by the emotional curve of my journey from Wales to New York and back again. When I return to the Amman valley, it is as if to the bosom of a friend. That friend floats in the language and seduces me with each translation."

The most intriguing thing about Cale's new work is that it takes him not only to the instrument - and, to a degree, the sound - he played as a youth in Wales, but to that original dilemma: the love-hate of Welsh at home, learning English at school, and leaving. "I'm now very sensitive to the idea that I have betrayed my heritage. I'm over here, in America, and I wonder whether what I did has turned me into a traitor. If you reject something you grew up with, does that mean that you have the DNA structure of a traitor? I'm very interested in traitors these days."

So, John Cale, perturbed traitor to Wales and Welsh, where is home? "New York is home," he says, with a moment of hesitation. "I don't see myself going back. All that stuff about the 24-hour city, it's true. You can get your business done any time in New York. I like that. I love going back to London, I love going back to Wales. But this is home - I think."

· The EP 5 Tracks is out on Monday on EMI, price Ł5.99 inc P&P. To buy it call the Guardian music service on 0870 066 7812. John Cale plays Glastonbury next month.

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red lights

Livewire's One on One
Honeyboy Edwards

At the Crossroads


Interview with Blues Legend Honeyboy Edwards

May 20, 2002



Virtually all of the great Mississippi Delta bluesmen are gone. Charley Patton, Robert Johnson, Elmore James, Son House, Muddy Waters and countless others have long left us. But there is still one talented Delta blues artist that is, luckily, still among us today and living in Chicago.
David "Honeyboy" Edwards not only still sings and plays the blues in the raw, unadulterated country style that he learned in the early part of the last century, but he's also a man with a wealth of fascinating tales that seem as large as any piece of American folklore.
Here's a man who often watched early bluesman Charley Patton play on the streets of the Delta Mississippi as well as the fertile blues ground of Dockery Farms. He ran with Robert Johnson a few years after his mythical deal with the Devil, where Johnson allegedly sold his soul in exchange for talent and fame. He was even at Johnson's deathbed, after he was poisoned by a jealous juke joint owner, whose wife he purportedly had an affair with. He was discovered by renowned folklorist Alan Lomax in 1942 a week before Lomax stumbled upon the then unknown McKinley Morganfield, also know as Muddy Waters. Like so many other Mississippi bluesmen at the time he made the Great Migration north to Chicago in the '40s and was a vital player in the burgeoning blues scene of early Maxwell Street. There's hardly a name in the pantheon of 20th century bluesmen that Honeyboy didn't know, play with or see perform. His own life history of wandering, womanizing, drinking, gambling and playing juke joints and street corners for nickels and dimes throughout a great deal of the last century sounds like it could be one of the defining stories in the life of a black country bluesman. Edwards is more than a talented blues musician, he's a walking piece of American folklore.
Honeyboy was kind enough to invite me into his Southside home for the following interview. With a keen memory and hospitable demeanor this legend shared some of his thoughts about not only his own career as a blues musician, but many of his late peers as well.





Interview and Photos by Tony Bonyata

Livewire: You're 86 now aren't you, Honey?

Honeyboy: Yeah, I'll be 87 in June. I was born in 1915 in Shaw, Mississippi.

Livewire: So you grew up in Shaw?

Honeyboy: Around Shaw and Greenwood. I had an uncle that lived in Shaw after my father moved to Greenwood. I'd be over there every week, you see. I'd stay at both of them places. But I was born and raised around Shaw and Greenwood - both the towns.

Livewire: Have you been down South recently?

Honeyboy: Oh yeah.

Livewire: Do you still have family down there?

Honeyboy: I've got some cousins down there.

Livewire: How has Mississippi changed since you were young?

Honeyboy: Oh, it's changed a lot. Nothing like it used to be when I was a boy. When I was a boy down there they had a lot of cotton, cotton gins, mules and wagons, a few cars and trucks. But mostly they had wagons to haul their cotton to the gin. A lot of farmers raised a lot of vegetables. Sold a lot of vegetables in town on Fridays and Saturdays. Now they don't raise too much cotton. They raise soybeans. All down through the Mississippi Delta about midways they got casinos down there too. Around from Memphis straight down 61 Highway clean on down to near Tunica.

Livewire: There's been dozens of great blues artists over the years, but is there one you consider as the single most important musician in the history of the blues?

Honeyboy: You talking about now or growing up?

Livewire: Anytime.

Honeyboy: Well, I know a lot of blues players. A lot of good blues artists, you know. You take Big Joe Williams, he's dead. He learnt me how to play. And I took a big influence with him, you know, 'cause he learned me a lot about playin' the guitar, and how to tune my guitar and what to do. Playin' in the streets and different things like that.

Livewire: When was this that he taught you how to play?

Honeyboy: Oh, that was in the '30s. It was 1932, I was 17 years old. I could play a little, but my brother in law learnt me how to play. My father played violin and guitar, so I learned some from my father too. But Joe learnt me how to play in the streets and get nickels and dimes from people and hustle - pass the kitty around in the streets, you know. He learnt me everything I know about the guitar. He played in Spanish and cross-key and he'd put me in natural key. He play Spanish and used a capo all the time. He wasn't really a natural guitar player - he'd play a good blues and what he'd play most, is what I'm trying to say, is that he played most in elevating keys like Spanish and stuff. But he could play in natural. He made over a hundred numbers, like "Schoolgirl, Schoolgirl" and "Crazy About your Black Sugar Mama" that Sonny Boy Number 1 made. Joe Williams owned them numbers. He was a big influence with what he was doing. But we had a lot of really good natural guitar players like Big Bill Broonzy and Lonnie Johnson. They were really fine men that played in natural key, you know what I mean. They could read music while they played it. But you play blues, you don't read no blues. You can, but most the musicians like B.B. King... we don't read no blues. What you have to do, you have to know your chords and you got to know your keys. You got to know that. Without that, you can't play. You have to know what key you're playing in. We got a few musicians now that are good guitar players but they don't know what key they're playing in. I've meet some musicians and good players that didn't know E from D, but he knows his sound alright. He'd call C D. He didn't know. But I was lucky enough to go to school and bought me guitar books and taught myself, 'cause I wanted to do that.

Livewire: And you said that you also learned from your father. What style did he play in? Was it the blues or was it something different?

Honeyboy: He played a few blues back then. The kind of blues my father played was like "John Henry Fell Dead with a Hammer in His Hand" and "Stagger Lee" and Big Joe Turner and Cryin' Joe Turner he played all of that. "Stagger Lee" is a piece over a hundred years old, did you know that? My dad done played "Stagger Lee."

Livewire: Can you tell me a little about your dealings with Charley Patton. Did you actually know him?

Honeyboy: Oh yeah, I knew Charley Patton. I knew Charley Patton in 1929 when I was 14 years old. Charlie Patton made his first recording, I think, around '31 or '32. He stayed at Dockery (Farms) then in '29 out there in Ruleville on number 8 Highway. He was living out there and I use to come out and watch him play on the streets of Ruleville, Mississippi. Charley died in 1934. I was 19 years old when he died. He died out in Holly Ridge.

Livewire: And that's where he's buried now, isn't he?

Honeyboy: Yeah. They put him up a nice stone there, I guess about 10 or 12 years ago.

Livewire: There's been some speculation from some blues historians stating that may not be the exact spot where he's buried. Do you think that's where he's actually buried?

Honeyboy: Oh yeah. I know he's buried there. I was there a week or two after they buried him. I come through there. I was 19 years old. I was going up to my uncle's house in Shaw, and we lived in Greenwood, right across the Tallahatchie River, and I used to walk there through Itta Bena and go on over there. Sometimes it'd take me a day, or a day and a half. I'd know friends clean on through the country, all through there. I'd stop off and stay all night and then go on over to my uncle's house.

Livewire: And I understand that you were lucky enough to have actually seen him play.

Honeyboy: Yeah, he'd play out there at Dockery Farms and play on the streets on Saturdays out there in Ruleville. He left Ruleville and went to place called Merigold, Mississippi, out there on 61 Highway. He stayed in Merigold 'bout two or three years, and then after he left Merigold he come back over there 'round Holly Ridge where he died at, over there where his uncle Sherman was at.

Livewire: Can you recall what Patton was like? I understand that he was quite a flashy player.

Honeyboy: Well, Charlie Patton was this little thin guy, mixed with a lot of Indian. He was related to Sam Chatmon of the Chatmon Boys. You know, from the Mississippi Sheiks. They made a hit in '29 with "Sitting on Top of The World." Bo Chatmon, and Lonnie and Sam Chatmon, I knowed them too. Charlie Patton and all them was first cousins. He was black mixed with some Indian and white. All those musicians come from the hills, and what I mean is they come from a place called Edwards, between Jackson and Vicksburg.

Livewire: Did you ever hear anything about the the trip that Patton, Willie Brown and Son House took up to Grafton, Wisconsin to record for Paramount?

Honeyboy: Well, at the time I was a little younger than Charley. But I knowed of the time when they done it. That stuff come out in like '29 and '30, up until '34. He died in '34. I was 18 and playing, but I was so young. Those were 78s, you know, when records were called 78s. H.C. Speir had a furniture store in Jackson, Mississippi and he sent Tommy Johnson and them up there. Me and Sonny Boy [Williamson] number 2 and Big Walter Horton we went there in '37 to record for Mr. Speir and it was so late that we couldn't get in the studio. It was seven days before Christmas, so we missed the session with him. Then me and Sonny Boy and Walter went to Vicksburg and then Louisiana and played there 'till spring near 'bout. And then me and Big Walter went to Memphis, and Sonny Boy he cut out. He wouldn't stay nowhere. Elmore James played with Sonny Boy longer than anybody, so he knew his bullshit better than anybody (laughs). Elmore used to cuss him out, "Hey, man, you go to hell!" and then he'd get back and start playing. He could take that harp and play be hisself. He could take that harp and make more noise and carryin' on with himself that he didn't need nobody else. That's the way he learned. He wouldn't stay with no guitar players for very long. Elmore played with him longer than anybody I knowed. And the other guys, most of them would just record with him and then cut on out. He went over to London and stayed over there a couple of years playin' with some of them boys over there. You see that picture with the derby hat on there [pointing to his wall with dozens of blues artists taped in a haphazard collage], he had that made over there in Europe in the '60s.

Livewire: How did you come to record for Alan Lomax in the early '40s? Wasn't that really your first really big break?

Honeyboy: Well, it was, but I really didn't know that at the time. The big recording session, I wasn't lucky enough to make that. That was in '37 when Lester Melrose went down there and picked up Tommy McClennan and all of them in Greenwood and missed me. That's where I missed out on everything when they were making all them 78s in '37. I was like 22 or 23 and I wouldn't stay nowhere. I had a couple of girls down in Greenwood - two or three. And I'd go to Vicksburg every weekend and sometimes duck across the river to Louisiana.

Livewire: Sounds like you had girls tucked away in a lot of places.

Honeyboy: Yeah, I was just like that all the time. Tommy didn't go nowhere but stay in Greenwood and play out there at the country dances and out there on the streets. And Lester Melrose knew this gang of musicians down in Greenwood, so he went 'round there and got Tommy looking for me. He said, 'Where's Honey? Honey was here last week.' They left there and come clean to Vicksburg looking for me . But by the time they got there I'd already crossed the Mississippi River into Louisiana. And that's when I missed that big session. That would've been a good one for me. But still, I made up in one way 'cause I did 17 cuts with Alan Lomax in '42.

Livewire: How many days did that take?

Honeyboy: One day, that's all.

Livewire: Were all 17 off those cuts issued for the Library of Congress or just some of them?

Honeyboy: Pretty close to all of them. Michael [Frank, president of Earwig Records] got some of them and cleaned them up for my LPs. [Honey reaches behind his bed into a case filled with his CDs and pulls out one titled, "Delta Bluesman]. Now this is some of the Alan Lomax stuff from 1942.

Livewire: He actually recorded you before Muddy Waters, didn't he?

Honeyboy: Yes, but it was the same week.

Livewire: I understand that Alan Lomax was searching for Robert Johnson, who had recently died, when he discovered you and Muddy.

Honeyboy: Well, I don't know because he was searching for everybody. Alan Lomax was all over Louisiana and Texas recording all kinds of artists. He was everywhere. He was down through Mississippi too. That's where he got me down there. He was like a collector. A collector of blues players.

Livewire: Do you feel what he collected, recorded and preserved has helped keep the blues alive to this day?

Honeyboy: Yeah, but I never really thought that the blues would die down. You take blues; blues got a little something of everything in it. It's got gospel in it. And you can play blues two or three different ways. Just 'cause you say you're a blues player that don't mean that you're a natural blues player. Most blues players play a little of everything. You don't just feel for the blues, but you feel for ragtime and a little bit of love songs and just about anything. Now you can play what I call a shuffle blues or boogie woogie - something a little more uptempo.

Livewire: That always seems to get the crowd going.

Honeyboy: Yeah, but then you turn around and take that boogie woogie blues and drop it in low gear and play the blues and make you think the woman left you and put something on your mind.

Livewire: The style that you started playing and that you still mostly play is considered country Delta blues. Other than yourself there hasn't been a whole lot of musicians that stick with that style here in Chicago is there?

Honeyboy: We got a few that try and play but they can't. You got to play blues with a feeling. You got to have a feeling with it. And you got to have the chords to go with the feeling. They play it, but they play it too fast. Blues isn't made to be played fast, not unless you're playing rock 'n' roll or an uptempo blues. Now if you're playing an uptempo blues that's a boogie woogie blues.

Livewire: Did you know Robert Johnson closely?

Honeyboy: I knowed him real well. I knowed him, Son House, Willie Brown. I knowed all of them.

Livewire: What is your take on the story of Robert Johnson selling his soul to devil at the crossroads?

Honeyboy: [Hesitant pause] Well, I don't know about that. He told me that but...we used to play and drink together and have fun together but at the crossroads.... When I was young I use to go to the crossroads myself and play in the country. In those days at the crossroads in the country the stars and the moon were so bright. There wasn't no city lights or anything like that. It was so bright you could look across the field and see a person walking about two blocks away. The stars and the moon were so bright it looked like it was six 'o clock in the morning, when it was twelve 'o clock at night. When I lived across the field, I'd go down this road 'till it hit another road going over to somebody else's house I'd just sit out there in the middle of the crossroads. I'd be out there with my half-pint of whiskey in my pocket and I'd sit out there at twelve 'o clock at night in the summertime and just play my guitar and have a drink. Then I'd go over to my friend's house and we'd hook up and play a little bit together. I had a guitar player that I knowed and we'd just practice with one another. That's how I learned. He may learn a chord that I don't know and I'd say, 'how'd you do that?' That's how we learned how to play like that. Then after I started playing then I went to a music store and bought me a guitar book, a chord book so I'd be able to...it's like I said before, there's a lot of good blues musicians out there today that don't know what the hell they're playin' in. When you know your chords and know where to go you don't have to ask nobody nothing. If you get together with other good blues players, I don't have to know you and you don't have to know me. It's like, 'hey, man I've heard some of the stuff you've done on wax," or whatever, and so I'll say, 'we'll do this in the key of A,' and he know how to go to his A and I'll know how to go to my A. When you do that, you got to be right.

Livewire: When you were growing up, did you have access to the records of the day?

Honeyboy: Oh, I listened to 78s and things like that. I mostly learned from myself and got the [guitar] book and learned. And from Joe Williams. Then I come to Memphis and I started listening to different people play blues in Memphis. There was a lot of good guitar players there. I was interested in guitar playing, like Lonnie Johnson's stuff. I like to play guitar. If you can't play with your fingers, then you ain't a guitar player. A lot of people gotta big wide sound with a slide. A slide got a good sound to it - a big wide sound. But anybody can play a slide!

Livewire: I saw you last year at the Chicago Blues Festival and I have to say you play a pretty mean slide yourself.

Honeyboy: Well, yeah. When you're playing slide in Spanish it's got a wide sound, not many chords 'cause the guitar's telling you what to do all the time. All you got to do is know where to go to. But when you're playin' if you don't go to the correct chords then you're gonna make a mistake all the time.

Livewire: What made you decide to move to Chicago in the '40s?

Honeyboy: Well, I come to Chicago in '45 with Little Walter Jacob. That's his picture right there [points to his wall]. I brought him up here when he was 15.

Livewire: But at that time you didn't stay in Chicago did you?

Honeyboy: No, I left and he stayed. But I come back in '46 and got him and went back down to Helena [Arkansas] and we was broadcasted all over the radio in '46. And I got my wife in '46. After I quit the radio station in '47 I went to Memphis, where my sister was and got married over there. I just wouldn't stay nowhere long. I got me a car and started running around. Got me a big amplifier, everything.

Livewire: So you were playing electric guitar in Chicago back then?

Honeyboy: Well, when I first left, no, I had a steel National. I didn't get the electric 'till 1946. My steel guitar got stolen in St, Louis. And I made me some money on the way and bought me an amplifier and guitar. So I've been playin' electric ever since.

Livewire: Do prefer the acoustic guitar over electric now?

Honeyboy: Well, I got all types. I got Gibsons. I got a Fender. I got 'em all 'round here under the bed. Play 'em all.

Livewire: Can you describe what Maxwell Street was like when you first arrived?

Honeyboy: In the '40s, on up until they started tearing down Maxwell Street, I knew so many people that would come up here from Mississippi and Arkansas with their guitars and things. So Maxwell Street, it didn't go too far. It ran from Blue Island to Canal. And they'd just stand and the music was playin' for a mile, a mile and-a-half, lined up on both sides of the streets. At that time all the stockyards were running in Chicago. The had three stockyards together right there on Halsted. And people would come to get work on the railroad, defense jobs and things. Chicago was full of work then. People would leave Mississippi and just start walkin' and find a job. And they'd play music up and down Maxwell Street. Maxwell Street never closed up. It was opened 24 hours. It stayed opened 24 hours - all day and all night. Never closed up.

Livewire: Do remember it getting pretty wild late at night?

Honeyboy: Well, they never done no fighting much like they do now. And there wasn't much cocaine like there is now. A lot of reefers and whiskey, that's all. But there wasn't no cocaine. The people working the night shift would go to work at like 12 at night and get off at 8 in the morning. They didn't go to sleep. They'd come to Maxwell Street and listen to the blues and drink. And they'd stay awake until 1 or 2 'o clock, then go home, get up and go back to work.

Livewire: Did you play a lot on Maxwell Street?

Honeyboy: Played pretty good. Yeah, about every day. Me and Jimmy Rogers. We all played - Big Walter [Horton], Little Walter, Earl Hooker, Floyd Jones, Snooky Pryor....we all played on the streets.

Livewire: How do feel now that the City of Chicago and U.I.C. has torn down the old Maxwell Street?

Honeyboy: Well, it used to be a like a market street. The market would be one side and the musicians would bee on one side, and there'd be people playin' in the middle of the street with their long extension cords. They had it all blocked off. There wasn't no cars coming through there. Just music and market.

Livewire: But do you feel disappointed that there's not a place like Maxwell Street for the blues musicians to play in Chicago now?

Honeyboy: Well, I tell you, the streets is alright but that's for most the local musicians. You take a lot of musicians that have done a lot of recording, they wouldn't play the streets now.

Livewire: Why, because they've moved beyond it?

Honeyboy: Yeah. The streets is for the local musicians who are hustlin.' When people get out like I have done and start makin' money, they got no business playin' the streets. I used to do that playin' for nickels and dimes. I don't have to do that no more! You understand what I'm talkin' about? You do that when you can't do no better.

Livewire: Do you think there's a place in Chicago where the local street musicians will be able to play in the future?

Honeyboy: Yeah, yeah! They're playin' out there now! They're playin' on 16th and Canal on the weekends - Fridays and Saturdays. There's a big market out there too. It's nice, but it ain't no Maxwell Street. There'll never be another Maxwell.

Livewire: How many records do you figure you've sold over the years?

Honeyboy: Oh, man, I don't know. I originally recorded for Folkways in the '70s and Smithsonian bought them out last year. I don't know how many copies they sold. Smithsonian just wrote me out a check for four thousand dollars. Sold lots of 'em.

Livewire: What do you think of the Chicago Blues Festival?

Honeyboy: It's a real nice thing going on. They really keep it up.

Livewire: It's nice that they offer all of this great music to the public for free.

Honeyboy: Oh, yeah! Everything all for free. They paid me about $2,500.

Livewire: For just one day's performance?

Honeyboy: Yeah, a couple of shows in one day.

Livewire: That sounds like a pretty good gig.

Honeyboy: Yeah, you'll never miss me there. I'll be there every year (laughs).

Honeyboy Edwards will be performing with Homesick James at the Chicago Blues Festival at Grant Park at 4:00 p.m. on Saturday, June 1st.

For more reading information on David Honeyboy Edwards check out his autobiography "The World Don't Owe Me Nothing" (Chicago Review Press).


Honeyboy Edwards 

A man he'll rise...

A book review by Gilbert Wesley Purdy

African-American Poetry of the Nineteenth Century African-American Poetry of the Nineteenth Century: An Anthology
512 pp. Chicago: University of Illinois Press. $44.95. Paper $19.95.

Invisible Poets: Afro-Americans of the Nineteenth Century
336 pp. Chicago: University of Illinois Press. Paper $11.95.


Joan R. Sherman's African-American Poetry of the Nineteenth Century introduced me to two dozen American poets whom I had never heard of before. To have accomplished such a feat is not easy.

But then the fact can only indicate just how badly this book was needed. There are few (even devotees of literature) who can name a single black poet who wrote before Paul Laurence Dunbar.

This might seem to argue that African-Americans wrote nothing of high merit before the time. The race was, after all, systematically kept illiterate. Most African-Americans were obviously reduced to slavery or other servitude. It would be no surprise to learn that Dunbar had been the first of his race to excel in poetry.

In the companion work to this anthology -- Invisible Poets: Afro-Americans of the Nineteenth Century -- the author informs us that "...their work, ranging from militant, race proud jeremiads to sentimental nature and love lyrics, faithfully conforms to nineteenth century poetic standards." American poetry from this time is not highly regarded by modern critics, and, often, for all the right reasons.

She makes a proper generalization: "Black poetry also exhibits the commonly deemed defects of American verse of the last century; didacticism and rhetorical shrillness; intellectual and emotional banality, diffuseness, and fondness for abstract and archaic diction and mythological-literary allusions." A race as harried as this could not yet be expected to create a separate aesthetic.

What, then, is more remarkable than to find black poets at all is to find that the level of poetry among them was quite high. Among the thirty-five poets included, seven wrote at least one poem which long should have found its way into some August anthology such as the Oxford Book of American Verse. One of the poems is a classic of 19th century literature though we seem yet to have realized as much.

The anthology begins with the slave poet George Moses Horton, "the Colored Bard of North Carolina." Ms. Sherman's earlier book, Invisible Poets, repeats the warning of a respected colleague that the biographies of the poets can overshadow the poetry itself as the reader's object. Yet this biography from the earlier book has made Mr. Horton an impressive figure for me. The sadness of his fight to free himself via the pen is a deeply touching story.

As a poet he is of the second rank, which is more than we ever could have expected. The English poet, Clare, and he share a great deal, and the comparison would enlighten us. There are a number of poets here who I believe Ms. Sherman has undervalued (she makes it a point to be demanding) and Horton is one.

The classic to which I have referred is George Vashon's Vincent Ogé which has inspired the likes of the black French poet Aimé Césaire. I know of no American poet of the 19th century, other than Walt Whitman, who has written such a poem. There can be no higher praise.

This poem about the Haitian freedom fighter begins magnificently:

   There is, at times, an evening sky --
 The twilight's gift of sombre hue,
All checkered wild and gorgeously
 With streaks of crimson, gold and blue; --
 

The language throughout is energetic and descriptive. An image such as,

Like the violet vapors that brilliantly play
Round the glass of the chemist, then vanish away,
The visions of grandeur which dazzlingly shone,
Had gleamed for a time, and suddenly gone.

is strikingly modern, and, at the same time, mindful of the special beauties of Shelley.

Again, the biography is fascinating. In 1848, Vashon was the first African-American to be admitted to the New York Bar (after Pennsylvania refused him the honor). He was sworn in as he traveled through the state on his way to a self-imposed exile in Haiti: his reaction to the status of the black man in America at the time.

After his return from Haiti, to teach at New York Central College, he wrote Ogé. It is conscientiously dated: "Syracuse, N.Y., August 31st, 1853."

Though Vashon is historical, hence didactic, the reader is likely to consider the label unimportant being so impressed with the beauties of the work. With Elymas Payson Rogers, however, didacticism is the entire aim.

What is remarkable is just how well the poetry reads nonetheless. Though the modern verdict is against teaching in verse, Mr. Rogers reminds us that we have our own unfortunate limitations which will be catalogued in their turn.

A Poem on the Fugitive Slave Law (1855) and The Repeal of the Missouri Compromise (1856) are blatantly histories. By them we learn what were the major issues of the time and what names were connected with the partisan parties. Slavery comes alive as the most inflammatory issue of the time.

We learn that pro-slavery whites were called "dough-faces" like whites are often now called "crackers". We are taught the value of names like Sumner, John Brown and the then New York abolitionist governor, Seward. While we learn all of this, we also learn that simple and energetic couplets can read as well as this speech by Slavery personified:

And I control the legislation
Of this great democratic nation,
And to my tried and cordial friends
My lib'ral patronage extends;
I raise them up to seats of power,
Although unworthy, base and poor.

This Presbyterian minister can thunder accusations against the clergy, as well, in the person of Slavery:

Their prayers are but the merest hoax --
But daring and blasphemous jokes.
When I am privileged to see
Their words and actions both agree,
I then may tremble, not before,
Upon my lofty seat of power.

The women in this volume do not fare as well. To be black and a woman was to have two strikes against one. The miraculous existence of the slave poetess Phillis Wheatley occurred during the previous century. Francis Ellen Watkins Harper -- the high black poetess of her century -- was a wonderful moralist, preacher of temperance and suffragette but a pedestrian poet.

Adah Isaacs Menken was surprisingly modern for her time. She might have surpassed such fine lines as,

     Cold friends and causeless foes!
     Proud thoughts that rise to fall.
Bright stars that set in seas of blood;
Affections, which are passions, lava-like
Destroying what they rest upon....

 

had she lived to be thirty. Her love for the poetry of Walt Whitman had already served to make her capable beyond her years.

Another Whitman -- Albery Allson Whitman -- was the black poet laureate of the age. His first work was appropriately titled, Not a Man and Yet a Man (1877). His volume, Twasina's Seminoles; or Rape of Florida went through an unprecedented three editions (1884, 1885, 1890).

His success as a popular author, however, could not have been possible without closely following the style of the time and he often is ineffective by modern standards. In retrospect, the work of Vashon and Rogers seems superior. It will not be until Paul Laurence Dunbar, for whom Whitman may have helped clear the way, that a popular poetry is aware of the need for an identifiable race consciousness.

Whitman's light skin, and adulation of the white poets Longfellow and Bryant, together with the fact that only a white poetic tradition existed within which to write at the time, makes him a pivotal figure. Upon achieving his first success, with Not a Man and Yet a Man, the poet twice wrote to Longfellow to offer up his humble work. He received no reply, and, after a time, switched his adulation to the more liberal Bryant.

The heroes of Whitman's works notably are American Indian, mulatto or octoroon, and parallels are drawn to the condition of the black man in America. Perhaps he felt this necessary in order to achieve a more general and lucrative success. All factors taken together, however, we must consider that the poet may have suffered an inner conflict to which his mulatto heritage left him particularly vulnerable.

Albery Whitman is the most consciously professional black poet until the time of Dunbar. As it happened, then, the poetry of the race became professional before it became racially engaged. The documented conflict of African-Americans subconsciously wanting to be members of the favored white majority plays itself out on this stage also.

Whitman typifies this well. His outcasts were from the slightly more acceptable castes of out casts. He needed this edge to find a wider spectrum of readers. Within himself he needed to work through the dominant white perception of his race and to somehow come to grips with the fact that he was born into a world which continually would undermine his self-image.

At the same time -- for the word "conflict" implies co-equal impulses -- he was one of the most active ministers of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (the organization which would be the focus of black activism for decades still to come). The points he tries via the characters who are his protagonists are strong and valid.

The answers to the manifold questions represented by Whitman are addressed by a poet only twenty years his junior and who will publish his first volume, in 1893, at the age of twenty-one: Paul Laurence Dunbar. Dunbar is the first historical figure in African-American poetry (perhaps after Phillis Wheatly) to become as much by no other reason than his talent.

Dunbar looked to dialect to make his work more racially oriented, and out of much more diverse reasons than generally are credited. Before long, he would come to view the strategy to have been a mistake: his readership failed to see behind the caricature or to divide the "plantation negro" from the African-American. This opinion is concurred with to this day.

Yet it did serve a purpose for those who could read deeply enough to find it. Lines like those from "Aunt Chloe's Lullaby," by Dunbar's contemporary, Daniel Webster Davis, may example the strength of dialect poetry:

Hesh! My lubly baby chil',
I gwy rock yo' all de whil';
Nuffin gwyne to ketch yo' now,
'Cause yer mammy's watchin, yo',...

Mammy's baby, black an' sweet,
Jes' like candy dat you eat,
Mammy lay yo' in dis bed,
While she mek de whi' folks bread.

As late as 1925, in a historically important essay by Alain Locke (a proud African-American), Joel Chandler, a creator of Uncle Remus, is said to have "...made the most permanent contribution in dealing with the Negro."

As is so often the case, the truth lies somewhere between all of these intelligent analyses. A bigot finds ammunition in "Aunt Chloe's Lullaby," and Uncle Remus. So vast an intelligence as Ezra Pound, for example, would one moment refer to the work with obvious love, and, the next, as an indictment against a race he'd been raised to despise.

Predictably, there will come a better time when Uncle Remus will be upon the shelf beside the likes of Aesop's Fables and Br'er Rabbit's British cousin Peter Rabbit. For the time being, the struggle of African-American poets (and artists of every stripe) requires that this image be vigorously rejected.

It is, then, not to Dunbar that we are advised to look, but to another, less powerful poet. The poetry of Timothy Thomas Fortune is not at the level of either Vashon or Dunbar. What it is, however, is realistically engaged.

He wrote poems like "Bartow Black" about an actual event in which the Klu Klux Klan executed a politically active black man as he lay sleeping beside his wife in bed. The frustration resulting from the historical period called Reconstruction begins, with Fortune, to take a voice:

He learned to think himself a man,
And privileged, you know,
To adopt a new and different plan, --
To lay aside his hoe.

He took the lead in politics,
And handled all the "notes,"
For he was up to all the tricks
That gather in the votes;

For when the war came to a close
And negroes "took a stand,"
Young Bartow with the current rose,
The foremost in command.

Aesthetically this is not exceptional. The stanzas describing Bartow's murder are still more questionable as poetry:

Poor Bartow could not reach his gun,
Though his quick arm did stretch,
For twenty bullets through him spun,
That stiffly laid the wretch.

And then they rolled his carcass o'er
And filled both sides with lead;
And then they turned it on the floor,
And shot away his head!

The advantages it has over Uncle Remus, however, would seem to be readily apparent.

After twenty years of Reconstruction had proven to be the cruelest of hoaxes, the battle for substantial emancipation had begun. It is arguable that the man who stood at the forefront was this journalist and editor, Tom Fortune.

The poem "Bartow Black" informs the reader of another equally important point. It was published in the A.M.E. Church Review (October, 1886). The source of funding and organization for the over 100 year struggle to come would be the black churches.

The northern churches had been the foundation of the Abolitionist movement. Now the African Methodist Episcopal Church would seek to free its own people from oppression. Where the A.M.E. Church would eventually leave off, the Black Baptist Church would take the baton.

Moreover, the laudable efforts of such abolitionists as L. Maria Child (a tireless white advocate who wrote The Freedman's Book, published in 1865) to prove that African-Americans could be very white, given the proper opportunity, would begin to be eroded by the fact of this shift to black leadership . Beginning largely with Fortune, the dominant culture was important only in so much as it was an effective tool to strengthen the race.

This is not to say that the author of "Bartow Black" succeeded in taking the rudder. Part of his story is also that there is only so much one person -- or a small group, at best -- can do.

His biography in Invisible Poets informs us how strong he was to have failed only to the degree that he did. From the height of his power when,

His uncompromising and often vitriolic journalism made Fortune a man who was worshiped, feared, or hated, but never ignored.

and even,

Theodore Roosevelt, as police commissioner of New York City, is quoted as saying, "Tom Fortune, for God's sake keep that dirty pen of yours off me".

Fortune eventually lost his newspaper, succumbed to alcoholism and suffered a nervous breakdown.

In the end, he lost his fight to another black faction -- considerably more conservative -- led by his longtime friend Booker T. Washington. Fortune himself recanted his radical positions as a matter of survival. Though he lived and wrote for another 17 years, and his funeral drew a huge crowd, part of his lesson to us is that reality is the sharpest of two-edged swords.

It would be fifty years before a black woman named Rosa Parks would refuse to surrender her seat at the front of the bus. Fifty years, that is, before the desire and the means could come together to follow what Tom Fortune first pointed out was the only practical path.

In the meantime, Washington's promise that thrift and Godliness alone would free the black people was the dominant strategy of the leadership. This led to the prophetic words of Alain Locke who wrote, in 1925, of the Harlem Renaissance:

But fundamentally for the present the Negro is radical on race matters, conservative on others, in other words, a "forced radical," a social protestant rather than a genuine radical. Yet under further pressure and injustice iconoclastic thought and motives will inevitably increase. Harlem's quixotic radicalisms call for their ounce of democracy today lest tomorrow they be beyond cure.

It may be only a poet's prejudice to find so much in African-American Poetry of the Nineteenth Century. But then the measure of poetry is its connection to life -- to the human crux of the matter -- in a fashion not yet given to prose and this is one of those glad occasions when it seems to prove itself. Here poetry and prose come together -- in companion works -- to provide us a vivid picture of events which otherwise would be a history empty of flesh and blood.

George Vashon gave us the glorious history of Haitian independence. The power of poetry to preserve our fragile humanity in its voyage from one generation to another is also written between its lines for the reader who brings love to it. It was read by the French poet Aimé Césaire who, in his turn, wrote such works as "In Memory of a Black Union Leader", and "...On the State of the Union", in 1960, for his American brothers.

All of this can only go to say this work was long, long overdue. The scholarly remove maintained here leaves the reader with a mine of poetry to cull for his or her own ends. The University of Illinois Press and Joan R. Sherman have a great deal of which to be proud.

This book is well-conceived and executed, and suggests that the word is, after all, a far richer and more promising salvation than the bullet. By the word, for example, Albery Whitman may remind us again, after 120 years, that:

Crush him to earth and crush him o'er and o'er,
A man he'll rise again and meet you as before.


"A man he'll rise..." has previously appeared in Blackfax: A Journal of Black History and Opinion.


About the reviewer: Gilbert Wesley Purdy is a freelance reviewer whose essays and reviews have appeared in many online and paper journals, including The Danforth Review, Elimae(1) (2), Point and Circumference, Cosmoetica, Clamor Magazine and the Monadnock Review.  He receives books of or about poetry for review at: P. O. Box 5952, Lake Worth, FL 33466-5952.  Books less than two years old receive preference but older books of compelling interest and/or quality are welcome.


© Gilbert Wesley Purdy, 2003

Jarboe laughs
The humorous side of the Swans siren
BY TED DROZDOWSKI

from "THE BOSTON PHOENIX", August 19, 2003



Jarboe


Jarboe explains that her original idea for the cover of the remix set Dissected (The Living Jarboe) was "me lying on an autopsy table nude with some organs removed." But as she collaborated on the design with photographer Cedric Victor-DeSouza, it evolved into something less elaborate: her face with a sewn-up gash running from forehead to chin. "That seems less gory or industrial."

Gory and industrial are words that could be used to describe her former band, Swans. As well as punk, sexy, debauched, and plain goddamn house-shaking loud. In her 14-year partnership with Swans founder Michael Gira, singer and keyboardist Jarboe who plays the Jorge Hernández Cultural Center this Tuesday was responsible for some of the creepiest, most strident music in American rock. Although the New York Citybased band mellowed and expanded their sound as they grew, their trademark remains a churning caterwaul alleviated by the more colorful melodic and ambient interests Jarboe introduced to Gira mated to lyrics about exploitation and dominance.

So its a little surprising when Jarboe proves to be such a cheery presence over the phone from a hotel room in Portland, Oregon, one of the stops on her first major US club tour, her voice further sweetened by the honey tones of a slight Southern accent thats the result of her Mississippi upbringing. Although maybe it shouldnt be. There was always an undercurrent of humor in Swans songs like "Raping a Slave" and "Red Velvet Wound." And since that band broke up, Jarboe has been intent on exploring her broad musical interests. "My own identity as an artist is much different from Swans. Being a studio musician and playing in a lounge band before I met Michael and growing up exposed to church music, Ive been through a lot musically, and Im having fun now rediscovering my reference points and trying to incorporate more and more elements of classic rock in my sets. Im doing an interpretation of Reason To Live by Kiss on this tour. I was invited to play an industrial festival in Greece, and Im going to work up a Led Zeppelin cover for that because I know theyre not going to expect it."

Jarboe has crafted her own surreal playground of dance music, ambient experiments, and soaring ephemera on five solo discs. And shes continued to explore themes of sexuality and identity that are often summed up visually by her CD covers, including the photo of herself nude except for a chastity belt adorned with vicious hooks on 2000s Anhedoniac (The Living Jarboe). Another liberation point was establishing herself as an Internet-based artist (www.thelivingjarboe.com) so she wouldnt be label-dependent. But right now what seems to be moving Jarboe again is collaboration. On this tour shes backed by the intriguing Italian ambient rock experimentalists Larsen, who record for Giras Young Gods Records. Theres also a new DVD, Krzykognia (The Living Jarboe), of a March 2003 Jarboe/Larsen performance in Gda<t-70>´<t$>nsk. And shes almost finished an album of duets recorded with male artists, including Ministrys Bill Rieflin, Einstürzende Neubautens Bliza Bargeld, guitarist David Torn, and singer Iva Davies of Icehouse.

"My next step," she says, "is going to be a CD of me alone my piano and guitar and voice. I have to complete the duets as a kind of filter to center myself. You have to be centered in yourself to do something as stripped down as just one instrument and your voice."

Jarboe and Larsen, with opener Thalia Zedek, play the Jorge Hernández Cultural Center, 85 West Newton Street, at 8 p.m. this Tuesday, August 19; call (617-927-0061.


Issue Date: August 15 - August 21, 2003

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Kimberly Akimbo Review From NY1

David Lindsay Abaire is an up and coming playwright known for dark comedies like "Fuddy Meers" and "Wonder of the World." His latest quirky creation is KIMBERLY AKIMBO, a piece about a girl who's 16 going on 70. NY1's Roma Torre filed this review.

KIMBERLY AKIMBO is one weird show, but I was bowled over by the singular theatricality of David Lindsay Abaire's new play at the Manhattan Theatre Club. The way this harrowing and hilarious work continuously shifts from satire to black comedy to realism could never work anywhere else but the stage. And blessed with a first-rate production featuring an exceptional acting ensemble, it is theatre at its most original.

Kimberly Levaco is about to turn 16. She's met her first boyfriend, and is soon to experience her first kiss. Though her dad worries about the boyfriend's intentions, there's no fear of accidental pregnancy. That's because Kimberly went through menopause four years ago.

Kimberly was born with a degenerative disease that causes her to age four and a half times the normal rate. Betrayed by her body, she's staring squarely at her own mortality, with a life expectancy that's just about up.

But Kimberly, as played and written, is no maudlin, self-obsessed teen. In fact, she's the normal one. And we discover she's suffering something even worse than her terminal illness - her family.

The family includes a pregnant, uncaring hypochondriac mother. Bandaged from carpal tunnel surgery, she's convinced that she's the one who's about to die. Her father is a spineless alcoholic with brief flashes of affection, and Jake Webber is outstanding in the part.

Both parents, in a chronic state of denial, manage to forget Kimberly's birthday, which statistically should be her last.

There's also her reckless aunt - a vulgar ex-con who ironically seems to have more feeling for Kimberly than her own parents.

It's a tricky play to produce because it requires the perfect balance between quirky and sincere. And this company, expertly directed by David Petrarca, pulls it off with exceptional flair.

Then there's Marylouise Burke. This 62-year-old actress' convincing performance as a teenager is a revelation. She's so believable that at one point, when she dresses like an elderly woman, the startling image takes your breath away. She provides the heartbreaking sanity to Lindsay Abaire's nightmarish world, where family dysfunction thrives amid a cultural wasteland. It's exaggerated to be sure, but rooted in reality just enough to make us all squirm from recognition.

The play's power comes from its ability to comment on so many profound issues in our lives: family neglect, aging, morality, love and innocence. It's painful to watch, but also enlightening. And if you stick with it, you may find yourself laughing through tears. Now that's theatre.

- Roma Torre

Manhattan Theatre Club's production of KIMBERLY AKIMBO, by David Lindsay-Abaire, directed by David Petrarca, is playing at City Center Stage I (131 West 55th Street). The performance schedule is: Tuesday through Saturday at 8 PM, with matinees on Saturdays and Sundays at 2:30 PM. Sunday evening performances are at 7 PM. Tickets are $60 and can be reserved by calling CityTix at (212) 581-1212. Group and student rates are available. For group ticket information, call (212) 399-3000 X 132. $20 student tickets are on sale for all performances based on availability on the day of the performance, up to one hour before showtime (limit 4 per student with valid identification). Call (212) 581-1212 for further information. MTC at City Center is accessible to people with disabilities and is equipped with a hearing augmentation system.

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Flute in the Storm
Filmmaker Jocelyn Glatzer discusses her upcoming film "Flute in the Storm," a portrayal of activist Arn Chorn Pond and his struggle to revive Cambodias dying musical heritage.

By Evelyn Adams Carrigan

An Interview Provided by the Boston Film/Video Foundation

Arn Chorn Pond at age 16.

Cambodian refugees in this country are somewhat of an enigma to most Americans. Few are aware of the devastation caused by the Cambodian holocaust during the 1970s Khmer Rouge uprising. In part, this is the power of Jocelyn Glatzers film, "Flute in the Storm."

The story documents internationally acclaimed human rights activist Arn Chorn Pond -- his amazing feat of escaping death several times; his courage to live on despite the pain; and his attempts to revive Cambodias dying musical heritage.

In 1975 the Khmer Rouge, Pol Pots peasant Communist regime, systematically decimated 90 percent of Cambodias musicians, dancers, teachers, artists, monks and anyone else suspected of being educated. Those who were captured were sent to labor camps to work 18-hour days. The prisoners were eventually killed or forced into military duty to fight the sudden Vietnamese invasion.

But a 10-year-old boy, Arn Chorn, managed to keep himself alive. During his internment, Arn learned from a master performer the ancient music of his country. The master was killed for the deed, but Arn was spared so that he could play military tunes on his flute for the officers at the camp. Later, while fighting the Vietnamese, Arn managed to escape his company, winding his way through the jungle for days until he found a refugee camp. There he met Reverend Peter Pond, a Cambodian relief worker, who adopted Arn and two other boys, and brought them back to America two years later.

"Flute in the Storm" tells a compelling story of healing, hope and the struggle to revive a cultural tradition on the brink of extinction. Knowing that he survived after having watched so many die has been a painful cross to bear for Arn Chorn Pond. But at 34, he has reached out to his Cambodian-American community in Lowell and in his native country. Arn is passionately and successfully implementing programs that are bringing the music back to its people. His Cambodia Master Performers Project is a valiant attempt to restore dignity and power to the few surviving masters by coordinating paid teaching positions for them.

The filmmaker, Jocelyn Glatzer has worked for Maysles Films and WNETs Great Performances series as well as various feature films. She started her own production company, Over the Moon Productions, after working in the documentary business for 10 years. She is a recent recipient of an LEF Foundation grant and director of "Flute in the Storm."

EAC: How do you know Arn Chorn Pond?

Glatzer: I met Arn in my senior year at Northfield Mt. Hermon School in western Massachussetts. It was obvious to me that he was not your ordinary prep-school kid. We started having dinners together and he told me his incredible story. Weve been friends ever since.

EAC: What prompted you to make this documentary?

Glatzer: Over the years weve kept in touch. We have both worked with an organization called Facing History and Ourselves so we ran into each other at workshops and conferences. I knew that someday I would work on a project with Arn. It was just a matter of when.

When I moved to Boston last year from New York, I contacted Arn to see what he was working on. Last September he spoke at Simmons College, and I videotaped the event. We had lunch and he told me about his work to revive Cambodian music. I knew immediately that Arns story and his important work should be documented. Arn mentioned that he was going to Cambodia in November, and he willingly agreed to let me follow him. I was ready to be engaged in something challenging and I knew that working with Arn would be an adventure. The film is about personal recovery and cultural survival in the aftermath of war -- music is the vehicle used to explore these issues.

EAC: How did you prepare for the trip?

Glatzer: I only had two months to get ready. Fortunately, I had some money in the bank from previous commercial work, and I went ahead with the faith that funding would appear sometime in the future. I hired a cameraperson and a sound engineer only, because I didnt want to have a huge crew. Arn had his itinerary set for the trip so I could plan a strong shoot schedule around the work he had mapped out for himself.

EAC: What was it like to travel around Cambodia?

Glatzer: Its tough because the countrys infrastructure is in such disrepair. The roads are a series of ditches, and it takes three hours to travel 50 miles. The option of taking a boat from Phnom Penh to Angkor Wat was no less inviting because the walkway was too narrow for us to carry our equipment and the boat was in rough shape. We chose not to go, but the next time Im there Im definitely going to try it.

For me personally, the toughest aspect of travelling in Cambodia was navigating the emotional terrain of the people who live there. Theres still so much pain because every single person has lost at least one family member and many people have seen the darkest side of human nature. The pain is palpable. It definitely had an impact on how we worked.

Arn is trying to make a dent by rebuilding the framework of his cultural heritage. He feels that the arts are the heart and soul of the country. He is really trying to save peoples' lives -- and doing this work heals him as well.

It was a very intense shoot. Very emotional. But I was driven by the fact that that its important for Cambodia to have world attention. The country is still very unstable. War crime tribunals are supposed to begin soon and they could severely impact the already precarious political climate.

EAC: Given the extant fear in Cambodia, how are people receiving the Cambodia Master Performers Project?

Glatzer: In Cambodia, the younger people dont know the music because it is never played. There is no music in the elevators, office buildings, or stores. They listen to Thai music and pop music. In America, Arn is helping the kids find a way to incorporate the traditional music with hip-hop and rap, which has worked well. Cambodian music has an incredibly unique sound that Westerners havent heard much. Ill be interested to hear how people will receive it.

"Flute in the Storm" will be completed in early 2002. For more information about "Flute in the Storm," contact Jocelyn Glatzer at Over the Moon Productions, Inc. 617-971-9497 or glatzer@aol.com. Also visit www.cambodianmasters.org.

Cambodian Fluteplayer
Story aired on PBS: Tuesday, July 22, 2003

 

When Arn Chorn Pond was nine, Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge seized control of his country, Cambodia. Nearly two million were killed in the genocide that followed.

The Khmer Rouge tried to kill Arn's culture as well, and almost succeeded. Artists, intellectuals, many members of Arn's musical family, were wiped out in the slaughter.

Arn was taken to a forced labor camp, where ironically, it was music that saved him. He was forced to play propaganda songs on the flute for his captors.

He also was made to help in executions and at the age of 14 was drafted to fight the Vietnamese.

Arn was eventually able to escape and tell his story. Despite Arn's adoption by an American minister and despite his full immersion in American life, he decided to return to
Cambodia to help his native country recover it's lost culture and to heal himself.

 

FILM SYNOPSIS

"The Flute Player" is a one-hour documentary film about the life and work of Cambodian genocide survivor Arn Chorn-Pond. Arn was just a boy when Cambodia's Khmer Rouge military regime took power in 1975. For four long years, Arn followed the strict orders of the Khmer Rouge doing whatever it took to save his own life amidst torture, murder, starvation and brainwashing. While imprisoned in a labor camp, Arn participated in the execution of others in order to survive, and he played propaganda songs on his flute for his captors' entertainment.

Arn was later forced by the Khmer Rouge to fight against the Vietnamese when they invaded Cambodia in 1979. After seeing his friends killed on the front lines, he escaped to the jungle, eventually finding his way to a Thai refugee camp. Two years later, an American refugee worker adopted Arn and brought him to the United States. At the approximate age of 16, Arn was living in rural New Hampshire, struggling to rebuild what was left of his shattered life.

In an effort to reconcile with his past and to prevent future atrocities, Arn set out, flute in hand, to awaken the world to Cambodia's holocaust. Accolades like the Amnesty International Human Rights Award, however, could not heal his broken heart and tortured mind.

Today at the age of 38, Arn has taken his very tragic past and turned it into something inspirational. He is striving to heal the deep scars of Pol Pot's genocide by bringing Cambodia's once outlawed traditional music back to his people. It is estimated that up to 90 percent of Cambodia's Master Musicians (the trained professionals) were killed or starved to death during the Killing Fields and the ensuing Vietnamese occupation. As the few surviving traditional Master Musicians grow old and fall ill, a way of life quietly sits on the brink of extinction.

From Lowell, Massachusetts to the back streets of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, "The Flute Player" follows Arn as he brings Cambodia's remaining Master Musicians back to their craft, and encourages Cambodian American kids to write songs about their lives and mesh hip-hop with traditional Cambodian music. Throughout this journey across generations, continents and cultures, Arn confronts his own life, lived in the shadow of a painful past.

Arn Chorn-Pond's story provides insight about the specific ways in which the past continues to influence the lives of refugees living in the United States today by illuminating and probing some of the most critical issues of our time: What does war do to the psyche of individual survivors? What steps can a country and its people take to rebuild after experiencing profound destruction? Why is the preservation of culture important to personal identity and survival? "The Flute Player" explores these questions as it tells a riveting and enlightening story about hope, healing and the will to survive in the aftermath of war.

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Cambodian Master Performers

Meet the last generation of surviving Cambodian masters and listen to recordings of their performances of traditional songs from the Cambodian Master Performers Program archive.

Chek Mach Chek Mach, vocalist, Phnom Penh
Chek Mach began her vocal training at the age of ten, studying Bassac opera in Phnom Penh. Before the Khmer Rouge came to power, she toured all over Cambodia, performing traditional songs as well as works in Chinese, French, Vietnamese, and Laotian. She joined the Cambodian Master Performers Program in 1999, and for three years she taught students near her home. Chek Mach passed away in January 2003 at the age of seventy.
Listen to a music clip:
"Bohvaskam"
Chek Mach, vocals
Youen Mek, tror so (two-stringed fiddle)
Recorded November 1999
"Jao Dawk"
Chek Mach, vocals
Recorded April 1999

Kong Nai Kong Nai, chapei dang veng and improvisational singing, Phnom Penh
Kong Nai plays the chapei dang veng, a two-string long-necked guitar. He also practices the Khmer tradition of improvisational singing while he plays. Improvised lyrics were traditionally satirical or humorous, but this was forbidden by the Khmer Rouge, and he was forced to sing songs of praise for the government. He now performs less controversial songs, mostly stories and fables. Kong Nai has been a teacher at the Cambodian Master Performers Program since 2002.
Listen to a music clip:
"Khemin Chum Nom Dai"
Kong Nai, vocals and chapey dang veng (long-necked guitar)
Recorded November 2000
"Pritia Cha Khmer"
Kong Nai, vocals and chapey dang veng (long-necked guitar)
Recorded November 2000

Nong Chok Nong Chok, 55, vocalist, Banteay Meanchey
Nong Chok began performing as an actor and singer when he was a young boy. He frequently performed with the touring opera company run by his uncle, Arn Chorn-Pond's father. During the Khmer Rouge's reign, he was allowed to perform only revolutionary songs. After the Khmer Rouge fell from power, he founded a new opera company devoted to telling traditional stories and fables, but he couldn't keep the company open. He became a teacher at the Cambodian Master Performers Program in 2000, and hopes to rebuild an opera company.
Listen to a music clip:
"Lom Toueng"
Nong Chok and Chek Mach, vocals
(with ensemble)
Recorded April 2000
"Lom Jom Heng"
Nong Chok and Chek Mach, vocals
(with ensemble)
Recorded April 2000

Yim Saing Yim Saing, 80, woodwinds, Phnom Penh
Yim Saing's first instrument was made for him when he was sixteen by his grandfather, who was also a musician. He plays five different woodwinds, and prefers to play ajai, a kind of ancient 'rap' music in which two speakers improvise a discussion from the structure of the music. Although mistreatment by the Khmer Rouge left him partially deaf, he continues to perform and teach. His daughter Chanthy is also an accomplished flute player. Yim Saing joined the Cambodian Master Performers Program in 1999.
Listen to a music clip:
"Dom Noeur Khmer"
Yim Saing, khloy (bamboo flute)
Recorded April 1999
"Traw Yawng Yom Tgno"
Yim Saing, khloy (bamboo flute)
Recorded April 1999

Yoeun Mek Yoeun Mek, 63, tro so, Battambang
Yoeun Mek has played the tror so since he was fifteen, when he built his first instrument. While a prisoner of the Khmer Rouge, he met Arn Chorn-Pond, and taught him the kind of traditional songs that were then forbidden by the government. After the Khmer Rouge fell from power, he worked in the state department of art and culture. Yoeun Mek began teaching at the Cambodian Master Performers Program in 1999.

 

Documenting Year Zero: The Yale Cambodian Genocide Project

P.O.V. spoke with Ben Kiernan, founder of the Yale Cambodian Genocide Program.

P.O.V.: You founded the Cambodian Genocide Program (CGP) at Yale in 1994. What was the CGP intended to do?

Ben Kiernan: First, in January 1995, the CGP established the Documentation Center of Cambodia in Phnom Penh, and formally began documenting the mass killings by Pol Pot's Democratic Kampuchea (DK) regime in 1975-79. While funding, training, and equipping the Cambodian staff of the Documentation Center, the CGP set out to collect, study, and preserve all extant documents and other sources of information about that period of Cambodian history; to make this information available to a court or tribunal willing to prosecute the surviving war criminals and genocide suspects, to victims or their family members, and to scholars around the world; and to generate an analytical understanding of genocide to assist in the detection and prevention of political and ethnic violence against populations elsewhere in the world.

For nine years, the CGP has furthered these goals of documentation, preservation, research, and training. In 1998, we expanded our activities to include other international tragedies. Under the rubric of the comparative Genocide Studies Program, we have established parallel interdisciplinary projects to document and research events during the Holocaust and in the colonial era, and more recent genocides such as those in Rwanda, East Timor, Guatemala, Bosnia, and Sudan.

P.O.V.: How does the CGP go about gathering documentary evidence? What kinds of materials are in the archive?

Kiernan: We first built up a multi-lingual library and archive at the Documentation Center. In Phnom Penh in 1996, the CGP obtained a 50,000-page trove of documents produced by the former Khmer Rouge regime's security police, the Santebal. We had these confidential communications between the top DK leaders and their apparatus of repression microfilmed by Yale's Sterling Library and made available to scholars worldwide. Based on information in this and other archives we had assembled, the CGP and the Documentation Center compiled and published over 19,000 biographic entries on Khmer Rouge officials and their victims, 3,000 bibliographic records on sources of information about that era, and over 6,000 photographs, documents, translations, and maps, along with CGP books and research papers on the genocide. Meanwhile we visited hundreds of mass grave and former prison sites throughout Cambodia, recording their precise locations on computerized maps and on satellite images taken during the genocide.

P.O.V.: What sort of opposition has the CGP faced in gaining access to documents or witnesses?

Kiernan: The CGP has benefited from helpful cooperation from the Cambodian and U.S. governments, and financial support from the U.S., Australian and Netherlands governments. Both of Cambodia's major political parties, the People's Party and the royalist Funcinpec, and King Norodom Sihanouk, have also provided encouragement and support. The Cambodian coalition government gave the CGP written authority to search throughout the country for documents, to interview witnesses, and record mass grave sites. The government itself provided documents, and donated land to the Documentation Center of Cambodia.

Meanwhile, in 1995 the Khmer Rouge opposition "indicted" me as an "arch war criminal." Pol Pot's clandestine radio station complained that "the Australian Ben Kiernan, who is an accessory executioner of the U.S. imperialists," was "prosecuting and terrorizing the Cambodian resistance patriots." Two days later a Khmer Rouge spokesman also called me a "vile and odious hireling of the communist Vietnamese and the Allies." The Khmer Rouge had me "tried" and "sentenced." Their own day in court is now approaching.

P.O.V.: What is the role of technology in the documentation project? Are the resources of the CGP widely available? Are there common access privileges, international standards, or rights to documentation?

Kiernan: We have made the original documentation which the CGP gathered as widely available as possible, in hardcopy in Phnom Penh, on microfilm through university libraries, or in scanned digital form on our website. Much of the data is also accessible in searchable form in our large biographic, photographic, bibliographic, and geographic databases (see links at right). These were developed using UNESCO standards and software, with the support of the Departments of Information Technology and Geomatic Engineering of the University of New South Wales, in Sydney, Australia, the Center for Earth Observation at Yale's Institute for Biospheric Studies, and the Yale Center for International and Area Studies.

P.O.V.: The government of Cambodia and the United Nations have recently come to an agreement on genocide tribunals. How do you think the tribunal will proceed? How do you see the prospects for success?

Kiernan: The signing of the agreement on June 6, 2003 is a major development in a long campaign to bring the surviving Khmer Rouge leaders to justice. For a quarter century justice has been delayed and denied by political considerations. U.N. support for and supervision of the tribunal to be held in Cambodia's Extraordinary Chambers is to be welcomed. A mass of probative evidence is now available to the international and Cambodian co-prosecutors and judges. We can only hope that a fair trial of perpetrators of the genocide and other crimes against humanity will help entrench the rule of law in Cambodia and deter criminals in other countries from contemplating such outrages against human rights in the future.

Ben Kiernan, born in Melbourne, Australia in 1953, is the A. Whitney Griswold Professor of History and Director of the Genocide Studies Program at Yale University. He is the author of a hundred scholarly articles on Southeast Asia and genocide, as well as several books including "The Pol Pot Regime: Race, Power, and Genocide in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, 1975-1979." He recently won the Critical Asian Studies Prize for 2002, and is currently writing a global history of genocide since 1492 for Yale University Press.

P.O.V.: You founded the Cambodian Genocide Program (CGP) at Yale in 1994. What was the CGP intended to do?

Ben Kiernan: First, in January 1995, the CGP established the Documentation Center of Cambodia in Phnom Penh, and formally began documenting the mass killings by Pol Pot's Democratic Kampuchea (DK) regime in 1975-79. While funding, training, and equipping the Cambodian staff of the Documentation Center, the CGP set out to collect, study, and preserve all extant documents and other sources of information about that period of Cambodian history; to make this information available to a court or tribunal willing to prosecute the surviving war criminals and genocide suspects, to victims or their family members, and to scholars around the world; and to generate an analytical understanding of genocide to assist in the detection and prevention of political and ethnic violence against populations elsewhere in the world.

For nine years, the CGP has furthered these goals of documentation, preservation, research, and training. In 1998, we expanded our activities to include other international tragedies. Under the rubric of the comparative Genocide Studies Program, we have established parallel interdisciplinary projects to document and research events during the Holocaust and in the colonial era, and more recent genocides such as those in Rwanda, East Timor, Guatemala, Bosnia, and Sudan.

P.O.V.: How does the CGP go about gathering documentary evidence? What kinds of materials are in the archive?

Kiernan: We first built up a multi-lingual library and archive at the Documentation Center. In Phnom Penh in 1996, the CGP obtained a 50,000-page trove of documents produced by the former Khmer Rouge regime's security police, the Santebal. We had these confidential communications between the top DK leaders and their apparatus of repression microfilmed by Yale's Sterling Library and made available to scholars worldwide. Based on information in this and other archives we had assembled, the CGP and the Documentation Center compiled and published over 19,000 biographic entries on Khmer Rouge officials and their victims, 3,000 bibliographic records on sources of information about that era, and over 6,000 photographs, documents, translations, and maps, along with CGP books and research papers on the genocide. Meanwhile we visited hundreds of mass grave and former prison sites throughout Cambodia, recording their precise locations on computerized maps and on satellite images taken during the genocide.

P.O.V.: What sort of opposition has the CGP faced in gaining access to documents or witnesses?

Kiernan: The CGP has benefited from helpful cooperation from the Cambodian and U.S. governments, and financial support from the U.S., Australian and Netherlands governments. Both of Cambodia's major political parties, the People's Party and the royalist Funcinpec, and King Norodom Sihanouk, have also provided encouragement and support. The Cambodian coalition government gave the CGP written authority to search throughout the country for documents, to interview witnesses, and record mass grave sites. The government itself provided documents, and donated land to the Documentation Center of Cambodia.

Meanwhile, in 1995 the Khmer Rouge opposition "indicted" me as an "arch war criminal." Pol Pot's clandestine radio station complained that "the Australian Ben Kiernan, who is an accessory executioner of the U.S. imperialists," was "prosecuting and terrorizing the Cambodian resistance patriots." Two days later a Khmer Rouge spokesman also called me a "vile and odious hireling of the communist Vietnamese and the Allies." The Khmer Rouge had me "tried" and "sentenced." Their own day in court is now approaching.

P.O.V.: What is the role of technology in the documentation project? Are the resources of the CGP widely available? Are there common access privileges, international standards, or rights to documentation?

Kiernan: We have made the original documentation which the CGP gathered as widely available as possible, in hardcopy in Phnom Penh, on microfilm through university libraries, or in scanned digital form on our website. Much of the data is also accessible in searchable form in our large biographic, photographic, bibliographic, and geographic databases (see links at right). These were developed using UNESCO standards and software, with the support of the Departments of Information Technology and Geomatic Engineering of the University of New South Wales, in Sydney, Australia, the Center for Earth Observation at Yale's Institute for Biospheric Studies, and the Yale Center for International and Area Studies.

P.O.V.: The government of Cambodia and the United Nations have recently come to an agreement on genocide tribunals. How do you think the tribunal will proceed? How do you see the prospects for success?

Kiernan: The signing of the agreement on June 6, 2003 is a major development in a long campaign to bring the surviving Khmer Rouge leaders to justice. For a quarter century justice has been delayed and denied by political considerations. U.N. support for and supervision of the tribunal to be held in Cambodia's Extraordinary Chambers is to be welcomed. A mass of probative evidence is now available to the international and Cambodian co-prosecutors and judges. We can only hope that a fair trial of perpetrators of the genocide and other crimes against humanity will help entrench the rule of law in Cambodia and deter criminals in other countries from contemplating such outrages against human rights in the future.

Ben Kiernan, born in Melbourne, Australia in 1953, is the A. Whitney Griswold Professor of History and Director of the Genocide Studies Program at Yale University. He is the author of a hundred scholarly articles on Southeast Asia and genocide, as well as several books including "The Pol Pot Regime: Race, Power, and Genocide in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, 1975-1979." He recently won the Critical Asian Studies Prize for 2002, and is currently writing a global history of genocide since 1492 for Yale University Press.

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Book Review By Maggie Freeman

A Conversation Piece: Poetry and Art

Edited by Adrian Rice and Angela Reid
The Museums and Galleries of Northern Ireland

in association with Abbey Press
Price: Ł14.99 / ISBN: 0 900761 42 3 (paperback) / 0 900761 43 1 (hardback)

A Conversation Piece is an anthology of art and poetry, centering on the current exhibition at the Ulster Museum. The poets involved have written down their reactions to the paintings. It attempts to create, through literature, what Mussorksky achieved in his musical composition 'Pictures at an Exhibition' where he lends paintings musical expression. One of the strong points about this collection is that the poetry and art is wide ranging in its style and approach. However, at the same time, each work is connected by the fact that a voice is given to the paintings.

Fifty one poets are contributors, examples of whom are Seamus Heaney, Tom Paulin, Brian Keenan and Jean Bleakney to name but a few. Again the variety in the collection is evident, with offerings from poets from all different types of backgrounds.

Obviously certain works stand out. One cannot fail to be impressed by Heaney's The Guttural Muse, which juxtaposes the mythological with every day life. He writes of the scene in 'Big Tench Lake' by artist Barrie Cooke.  Heaney delights in bringing to life the images of the painting. Our senses come alive as he describes the smells of "the heat of the day" (l.2) and the sounds of the voices which rise up "thick and comforting". He gives the "tench" in question a human voice, and the "lake" of the scene evolves into the very water of life itself. Indeed, it is the "soft mouthed life" of the poem.

Other poems adopt a more humorous approach in response to comical images such as the Tired Child of Louis le Brocquy's painting. Molly Freeman eloquently translates the visual into the written by becoming the voice of the art. Her reaction to the child involves actually becoming childlike herself. This is evident when she writes:
    I, just a child,
   Can do nothing but grasp               (ll.7-8)
The combination of the painting and poem refreshingly brings about one's own return to childhood.

On a more pensive note, Colin Middleton's beautifully delicate Dream of the Moth is portrayed in the equally beautiful lines of poetry by Frank Delaney. Where the 'Tired Child' returns us to childhood, this "dream" transports us back in time to the past lives of a "Neanderthal face" (l.4).The metamorphosis of the moth is questioned both in the painting and the poem, where we wonder if "she'll become the moth" (l.9). Even more interestingly, Delaney also imagines the painter's thoughts. He considers, for example, that "The painter knows a leaf looks like a heart" (l.13). A voice is given to the invisible force behind the art, and not just to the painting itself.

Some of the poems, however, are more accessible than others. Tom Paulin's On, though an impressive work in its own right, can be elusive like the "silent lands" of Jack B. Yeats' painting, which it answers. On the other hand, the painting itself is ambiguous, therefore naturally lending itself to such an interpretation. 'On' is particularly relevant for the Northern Irish reader, what with its mention of "some ruined LOL" who "holds his bowler sadly". It does, though, at the same time make wider statements about the nature of reality itself. The "silent lands" are depicted as a type of Eden which gradually breaks down. In this way, the image of the painting is not a mirror of reality but instead is an illustration of a dream world; a "dream of belonging" as communicated by Paulin in his last few lines. On is essentially an expression of the self, of the identity which is absent from the artist's canvas. This identity dreams of becoming a reality, hence the "dream of being" of the last line.

Other poetry is more self-reflexive, such as Theo Dorgan's James Joyce on Inishere. Here the poem hinges upon the notion that one of the men in the painting resembles James Joyce, with his "carpenter's shoulders" and "clean white shirt under the sweater". We are presented with a microcosm of the world in the first verse - that of a specifically working class reality. The second verse begins to expand the poem's scope, personifying the sea itself. Dorgan's work expresses a somewhat cynical view of existence: the "weariness of sin and the world". As a result, we consider that one is forced to create a new world inside oneself. We become the "island solitaries" of the final verse. 

As a whole, this impressive anthology is a thought-provoking, meaningful work, which deserves contemplation.  

The book will be launched in Dublin on 14th February, 2003 at the Irish Writers' Centre. For further information, please visit the web site for Abbey Press, Irish Poetry and Prose or contact:

Abbey Press,
12 The Pines
Jordanstown
Northern Ireland BT37 0SE.

September 11 revisited

Lars von Trier's allegedly anti-American film Dogville has been the talk of the festival. So how will US citizens find it? As terrifying as those two jets hitting the Twin Towers, says New York film critic John Anderson

Friday May 23, 2003
The Guardian


Nicole Kidman in Dogville
Even the most blinkered, Bible-beating Bushite would have to admit that Our Town, dramatist Thornton Wilder's 1938, Pulitzer prize-winning homage to bucolic, small-town America, has become all but unbearable. Even if taken at its most ironic, the play possesses such cloying sentimentality, faux simplicity and tortured naivety that it's become as embarrassing as an episode of Amos & Andy. Or Will & Grace.

Part of the reason for the quasi-hysterical reaction to Lars von Trier's Dogville at Cannes this week (a Variety critic was all but foaming with Ashcroftian umbrage, or auditioning for US talk radio), is its merciless reconstitution of such a venerable institution as Wilder's play. Or, to cite another example, Tom Sawyer, which makes several appearances throughout the film. Or the naming of Dogville's male lead Tom Edison (whose namesake once said that genius was 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration, and always expected the perspiration to come from someone else). Or the Capraesque qualities of its heroine, played by the incongruous Nicole Kidman. Or the perhaps minor, but telling, detail that Hummels - the kitschy figurines that even the Germans can't take seriously - are considered high art by the movie's Erskine Caldwellesque characters. A lot of Americans, we must reveal, collect Hummels.

So without even mentioning foreign policy, Von Trier has hit a lot of us where we live. And that place, in the Danish director's fertile mind, is a bubble of myth and provincial thinking.

It's too bad that, during his press conference on Monday afternoon, Von Trier side-stepped questions about the film's unmistakably anti-American bent, declaring at one point that he himself feels "like an American". (Of course he does; if you ascribe to his view of US cultural imperialism, how could you avoid it?) There are plenty of Americans who appreciate Von Trier's point of view. And they might have appreciated hearing him back it up.

It's somewhat ironic that a film festival featuring Von Trier's very pointed drama would also include Time magazine critic Richard Schickel's documentary about Charlie Chaplin, and have as its closing night film Chaplin's 1936 masterpiece Modern Times. Chaplin seems a classic example of the outsider who comes to America, makes mighty contributions to his new country and delights the US public only to have it turn on him. In Von Trier's film, it is Grace who arrives from elsewhere and provokes suspicion (she is, after all, fleeing a carload of gangsters) but who is eventually embraced - and then exploited, abused, enslaved and betrayed. She, however, gets to exact her revenge. Which is the most outrageous turn in von Trier's brilliantly twisted plot.

It is necessary to give away a bit of Dogville in order to get near its politic essence, which shouldn't affect its commercial prospects because, frankly, it doesn't seem to have any. At a current running time of three hours (or a reported two hours and 20 minutes in its soon-to-be-released European version), Dogville was a tough ride for even the most sympathetic viewer. For more mainstream American audiences, it'll be too obscure in its meaning to generate either interest or outrage. Von Trier, unfortunately, will be preaching to the choir.

But it will still be a discomfited choir: Von Trier explodes the complacent self-image of the US the way De Tocqueville once deflated its democracy, Upton Sinclair exposed the malevolence of its commerce and John Steinbeck exploded its illusion of community. The Dogville townsfolk are basically a mob, kept on a leash by boredom, poverty, provincialism and children. Their worldview is nil (no news reaches Dogville, which may explain their antiquated diction). Their self-interest is not enlightened, and they may have been inspired by a line out of Mike Leigh's Topsy-Turvy: "The more I see of men, the more I admire dogs."

The men who were originally chasing Grace are gangsters, but they include her mob-chief father (James Caan, in a cute bit of casting). Given the power by him to destroy the town, Grace seizes it, has the population machine-gunned and the place burned to the ground.

Call her a terrorist, because that's what she is. But that's not what she was - she initially fled the terrorists, her own people as it were, seeking what she thought would be a better life, based on seeing the best in people. Those people, whose village should have provided a safe haven for someone like Grace, instead exploited and abused her.

For any American, seeing such nakedly hateful sentiments expressed by a filmmaker such as Von Trier should be as terrifying as a replay of those jets ploughing into the World Trade Centre. It is equally terrifying to think that those sentiments will be dismissed, ŕ la Variety, as "anti-American" in the sense that they are a fad, or a stage the rest of the world is passing through. Von Trier may be displaying a fascist instinct in Dogville, but he is not without a sense of history, be it political, religious or revolutionary. And history would seem to be on his side.

· John Anderson is chief film critic for Newsday.

Fusion feast
Vogels Ride is well worth taking
BY CAROLYN CLAY

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REMARKABLY LIFELIKE, the bunraku puppets are here manipulated by Angela Brazil, Rachael Warren, and Stephen Thorne.

The Long Christmas Ride Home By Paula Vogel.
Directed by Oskar Eustis. Set by Loy Arcenas. Costumes by William Lane. Lighting by Pat Collins. Choreography by Donna Uchizono. Sound by Darron L. West. Puppets designed by Basil Twist. With Angela Brazil, Timothy Crowe, Seán Martin Hingston, Anne Scurria, Stephen Thorne, Rachael Warren, and musician Sumie Kaneko. At Trinity Repertory Company through June 29.

Playwright Paula Vogel spends more time in a car than a taxi driver. She won her 1998 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for How I Learned To Drive, the lyrical, economical story of a young girls liaison with the uncle who taught her, among other things, to handle an automobile. Now, in her first play in five years, the haunting The Long Christmas Ride Home, which is getting its world-premiere production at Trinity Rep, she puts yet another unhappy family in a Rambler for a metaphorical journey that blends the influences of Thornton Wilder and Japanese noh. Throw in Vogels own savage whimsies and you have a potentially exquisite contemplation of the childhood roots of personality, dysfunction, and heartbreak in which past and future, East and West, actors and puppets share the stage.

Inspired by the short plays of Thornton Wilder, including The Long Christmas Dinner and Happy Journey to Trenton, as well as by the final act of Our Town, Vogels intermissionless tragi-comedy begins in the 1950s, on a miserable, pivotal car ride to and from Grandmas house for Christmas dinner. In the front are hostile parents Ray (a bitter philanderer) and Kate. In back are the children, precocious Rebecca, sensitive Stephen, and daddys tomboy Claire, in the form of lifesize bunraku puppets manipulated by the actors who will later play the children as adults and by masked black-clad puppeteers. Clad in their Sunday best, the puppets, the creations of Basil Twist, are remarkably lifelike, their faces little masks of sorrow, elation, apprehension, and bewilderment.

Relating the shattering events of this family Christmas, " years and days ago, " the parents narrate each others sins and grudges, often in deftly heightened language; the puppet children alternately swat at one another and soar in holiday reverie, anticipating turkey and presents and " disappointment. " On the way home, after the party has ended in hostilities, a moment of violence results in the cars leaving the road to rest perilously above a creek bed. In an agonized moment of suspended time, the three children are then hurtled into the pained, disconnected futures for which their wounded childhood is preparing them. It is here that the play, like the car, spins a bit out of control, only to return, at the end, to a beautiful coda that echoes both the dead Emilys realization in Our Town and the mantra of the Grandma of Vogels play that " its amazing what people throw away. "

In the second half of the play, in three brief, melodramatic scenarios, each grown sibling finds himself shut out by a rejecting lover. Rebecca, who never wanted children, is pregnant by her live-in boyfriends best friend. Claire, abandoned by her lesbian love, is suicidal. And Stephen has died of AIDS willfully contracted through unsafe sex on the rebound, in the back room of a biker bar. These arguably clichéd dramas, luridly sketched, are themselves daringly enhanced by the use of puppets (including naked lesbians making love in a lighted window), their part of the dialogue supplied in abstract blats by on-stage musician Sumie Kaneko on a long-necked Japanese string instrument called the samisen.

The use of Eastern philosophy and artistry is, for the most part, ingeniously incorporated into The Long Christmas Ride Home, from the flashback to the Unitarian Universalist Christmas Eve service that begins Stephens lifelong fascination with things Japanese to the music and puppets. At the core is the Buddhist belief in " ukiyo, " " the floating world, " in which the ephemera of life is both acknowledged and celebrated (joy in the world as opposed to " Joy to the World, " as the UU minister puts it). Toward the end, as the dead Stephen explains the presence of " the ancestors " breathing among us, there is also an Asian-influenced dance sequence by electrifying actor-dancer Seán Martin Hingston, though it was unclear to me whether meant to represent Stephen or the love of Stephens life.

Whatever its flaws, The Long Christmas Ride Home is a stunning stage piece, theatrical and tender, and Oskar Eustiss expert Trinity production, developed with Vogel, is a proud accomplishment. To my mind, there remains work for Vogel to do in the second half of the play, to tone down the formulaic, overwrought, and repetitive elements of the flash-forwards. But the saga of the forlorn and angry nuclear family, and of the puppet siblings in particular, joined like ONeills Tyrones by old sorrows and unbreakable " strands of flesh, " is original and unerring. Vogels ambitious, impossible notion to fuse her Rambler with a Toyota was worth waiting five years for.

Issue Date: May 30 - June 5, 2003

Recent Reviews

 

Old and new dreams
The Newport Jazz Festival and the Fringe move on
BY JON GARELICK



ELDEST STATESMAN: Brubeck was the strong link to Newport's past, willing to play 'Take Five' for as long as people want to hear it.



BREAKOUT: the Spanish Harlem Orchestra were the big second-stage hit of Sunday's festival.



TOUGH TENOR: but Dewey Redman also played alto and musette.



IN-A-GADDA-DA-VIDA, BABY! The Fringe ended their five-year residency at the Lizard Lounge with their typical mix of ferocity, sensitivity, and humor.


At 4:30 last Sunday afternoon, the closing day of this years JVC Newport Jazz Festival, a strange sound wafted over the sun-baked grounds of Fort Adams State Park an alto saxophone playing a slow blues.

At one time that sound would have been the hallmark of a major jazz festival. But its a sign of how varied jazz has become that what was once the norm is now the fringe. And its not that this was by any means a festival watered down by pop just that jazz wore so many different faces. On this day alone, Cassandra Wilson sang her jazzy deconstructions of folk, rock, and pop; Pat Metheny assayed state-of-the-art guitar-trio jazz leavened by his particular brand of folk; the Detroit Experiment and MeShell Ndegéocello grooved with hip-hop; the Bad Plus played piano-trio Nirvana; Stanley Clarke played old-school, very loud jazz-funk fusion; Eddie Palmieri played his revved-up Latin jazz; the Spanish Harlem Orchestra played vintage salsa; Dewey Redman was an old avant-garde dog playing some old and new tricks; and Dave Brubeck was Dave Brubeck.

The whole weekend, in fact, had been like that. From George Benson to no-show India.Arie and even opening-night chanteuse k.d. lang and indie-rockers Smokey & Miho (who have traded their rockisms for straight-faced bossa nova) everyone honored a legit jazz pedigree. It was one of those events producer George Wein says hes always looking for, one that delivers both artistic credibility and commercial viability.

The weather, of course, didnt help with the latter. Metheny can draw a few thousand by himself, but threatening weather makes Newport and its site on the exposed Narragansett peninsula of Fort Adams a financial risk for the consumer. How wet do you want to get for Pat? So the 10,000 capacity site drew 5500 on Saturday and 6000 on Sunday respectable, indeed, but not a blowout. Wein would be the first to tell you: thats show biz.

Even in the milieu of a high-quality varied program, Bobby Militellos alto solo on Brubecks "Travelin Blues" hit with a pleasurable shock. In its pure tones and beautifully articulated double-time runs, it could have held its own anyway. But on Sunday it had the added benefit of being something that no one else was playing even though, in stylistic terms, it was as old as the day was long. And it got an ovation bigger than that I heard for any soloist that day.

Brubeck, at 82, was the festivals eldest statesman and the strongest link to the musics past. He opened with "The Sunny Side of the Street" (a cheery thumbed nose at the overcast skies?), which was full of his patented pummeling staccato chords and a touch of stride. On "Travelin Blues," he jacked up the intensity of Militellos solo with triplet quarter-note exclamations. It looked like being a good set. "Take Five" was on the list for an encore. At a backstage press conference later in the day, when he was asked why he plays the piece every night, he said, "You can tape it every night of my life and find out why I keep playing it."

I would have stayed for Brubecks finish, but there were other legends to be heard. The Newport Fest does a good job of alternating its main-stage and second-stage acts, but the fact is, you cant sit through an entire set of one artist without missing a chunk of somebody elses, especially as the day progresses and scheduled set times run askew. On Sunday, I wanted to catch Dewey Redman, who was playing opposite Brubeck. Now 72, Dewey has never been as famous as his son Joshua, but among jazz fans hes more important Fort Worthborn, hes in the lineage of tough Texas tenors like Arnett Cobb and Illinois Jacquet, an important voice in Ornette Colemans bands of the late 60s and early 70s, and even an innovator at incorporating "world music" influence into jazz.

At Newport, he did it all. By the time I hustled over to his side of the Fort, he was in the middle of a beautiful take on the Sammy Cahn ballad standard "I Should Care." His "Walls-Bridges" was Ornette-like, with a helter-skelter head punctuated by dramatic stops, and then a very up-tempo straight-time run. Redman played alto on the tune, and that made his link with fellow Fort Worth native Coleman even more explicit in the vocal quality of his tone and phrasing, and in the spontaneous irregularity of those phrases lengths. For a bit, he vocalized through the horn, another Redman innovation, both comic and directly emotional.

On "Unknown Tongue," he brought out the double-reed Arabian musette hes been playing for years as a "second" instrument, with its truly exotic, nasal trill. After a short, out-of-tempo a cappella introduction, bassist John Menegon and drummer Matt Wilson joined him in a dancing polyrhythm. Redman got theatric he broke into a babbling "unknown tongue," put his hands on his hips and looked askance, mugging like a comic tribal chieftain (and he was dressed the part, in his usual skullcap and dashiki shirt), led a call-and-response with the audience. He ended on a barrelhouse tenor-sax blues, getting another call-and-response going, returning to R&B roots.

THE EXPERIENCES of live and recorded music have their differences, but festival going is a whole other ballgame. A more useful analogy would be the difference between live football and football on television: it almost takes a different kind of person to enjoy one or the other. At Newport there are no reserved seats (except for a section of folding chairs for corporate sponsors), so everyone has to stake out his or her terrain on the sloping field in front of the fort. Theres little shelter from the elements, and little to focus your attention on the small figures on the stage except the sound and the insufficient Jumbotrons. Still, I recall falling into a rapture of dreamy attentiveness one sun-drunk afternoon as Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter exchanged phrases on that stage so far away.

Cassandra Wilson was something like that Sunday. She disassembled Hoagy Carmichaels "Skylark," Dylans "Lay Lady Lay," and the Monkees "Last Train to Clarksville." She created new melodies and floated them on her rich contralto, made the Dylan more urgently menacing and sexual, made "Clarksville" sound like Robert Johnsons Clarksdale. She shimmied around the stage as percussionist Jeffrey Haynes played a modified trap set with his hands, Brandon Ross played unamplified acoustic guitars, Lonnie Plaxico kept track of the elusive beat, and Gregoire Maret sailed his chromatic harmonica lines through the humid air.

There was an advantage to playing the Mercedes-Benz Pavilion second stage, since the tented roof with folding chairs for a couple of hundred concentrated sound as well as audience attention. So its no surprise that newcomers the Spanish Harlem Orchestra exploded and made hash of venerable Latin hero Eddie Palmieris otherwise elegant main-stage set. Here was a 13-piece outfit with three lead male vocalists, a two-trumpets/two-trombones/one-baritone-sax horn section, bass, keyboards, timbales, congas, and bongos. Everything was about rhythm: the montuno call-and-response of the singers (replete with synchronized choreography), the layering of soaring trumpets over riffing trombones, leader Oscar Hernándezs piano chords. And it was all executed with hairpin precision. Their Ropeádope release Un Gran Día en el Barrio only hints at the power this band pack live.

As for Pat Methenys Newport debut, with bassist Christian McBride and drummer Antonio Sanchez, for the most part it did not disappoint. The former boy wonder opened with a showy acoustic number, using a custom-made guitar with two sets of criss-crossing strings (it was on view at the MFA "Dangerous Curves" guitar show a couple of seasons ago) that gave him mandolin highs and double-bass lows. But it was the trio interaction that generated the real excitement, McBride and Metheny perfect foils as their morphing rhythmic motives created the illusion of self-generating melodic lines.

THE FRINGE, the marvelous avant-garde trio whove been playing weekly residencies at Boston clubs since roughly their very beginnings in 1971, are moving on again. For the past five years, theyve been at the Lizard Lounge on Monday nights. Before that they were at the Willow in Somerville, and in the very beginning, they played Mondays at Michaels Pub on Gainsborough Street, near New England Conservatory. In those days, saxophonist George Garzone, bassist Richard Appleman, and drummer Bob Gullotti would start with tunes of their own making, or maybe a vintage Archie Shepp number like "Keep Your Heart Right," and take off on free-form improvisations of heavy-metal intensity.

Aside from John Lockwoods taking the bass chair after Applemans departure some years ago, the Fringe havent changed all that much. The word was that at the Lizard the residency had become unpredictable all three players are in high demand, as teachers and sidemen, so one never knew how much Fringe would be there on a given night. (All Garzone would say off stage was that things had been "a little slow." ) And last Monday night was true to form, with drummer Gregg Bendian sitting in for Gullotti.

That was a shame: it would have been great to see all three together until the next club steps forward with an open night, and Gullottis ferocious mix of iron control and explosive, pummeling kick-drum abandon is crucial to the bands sound. But in the end, it was still a great Fringe night. Bendian an authoritative percussionist who has worked with Cecil Taylor and Derek Bailey, among many others plays with a transparent lightness thats the opposite of Gullottis monolithic sonics, but hes just as precise, just as inventive, with his own sense of color, his own intensity and depths.

And that only left Garzone more room. Sometimes it seems like nothing more than an accident of fate and personality that Garzone is less famous than his friend Joe Lovano. Here was the Coltrane school of effects the rock-solid technique, the outbursts of multi-note speed runs and multi-phonic wails plus a mix of tenderness and humor thats all Garzones own ("Thanks for coming out," he said laconically to the respectable-sized crowd as he opened the set. "Where were you for the past five years?"). He made a joke about continuing the residency at T.C.s Lounge, a dark Berklee-neighborhood watering hole with a decidedly non-live-music policy, then later in the set aimed Redman-like vocalisms through his horn at Lockwood ("Johnny, lets go to T.C.s," I could swear he said). He played mantra-like short-breathed phrases, swayed into "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida," made up a tender ballad on the spot, and led the crowd in a football cheer thats become the bands theme song since they invented it in the Patriots championship year. In the second set, he alluded to Coltranes "Bessies Blues" and finished with "Naima," content to end with a benediction rather than a rant.


Issue Date: August 15 - 21, 2003
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Absolutely modern
Pierre Boulez at Harvard; Emmanuels final Schubert concert
BY LLOYD SCHWARTZ


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NO LONGER BRASH AND OBSTREPEROUS, at 78 Boulez continues to tell the truth as he sees it.


" One must be absolutely modern, " a 19-year-old Frenchman Arthur Rimbaud wrote in 1873, and his dictum has been a cri de cur for French artists ever since. Last weekend, Harvard Universitys Music Department and its Center for European Studies devoted an entire day to the subject of French Modernism, and the sun around whom the days events revolved was the most absolutely modern of living French artists: conductor, composer, ćsthetic philosopher, institutional organizer, hero of the avant-garde, teacher, and witty raconteur Pierre Boulez. It had been five years since hed appeared in Boston and 40 years since hed spoken at Harvard.

The days events began with a closed session between Boulez and students and faculty from the Harvard Music Department and continued with a panel (sans Boulez) on French Modernism in music, photography, and art. Johns Hopkins art historian, critic, and poet Michael Fried (some of whose poems John Harbison has set to music) discussed Roland Barthess last book, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography ( " Reading passages of Barthes gives one the illusion of great intelligence " ), especially Barthess irritation with any theatricality of intention an issue that would return later in the day when Boulez was asked about the theatrical aspects of his own music. Then Yves-Alain Bois of Harvards Art Department spoke on " non-compositionality " in post-war French painting and the use of chance as a way of avoiding " subjectivity. " " Im not familiar with these painters, " one of the panelists admitted to Bois. " Why should you be? " , Bois replied.

Then New Yorker/NY Times music critic and Elliott Carter librettist Paul Griffiths spoke revealingly about Boulezs early years in Paris during and just after the Occupation (the Nazis had banned French music), about how the precocious firebrand expressed the " unqualified moral anger of the young " and the idea that " any important work of art had to be a criticism an annihilation of what had come before, " what Boulez called " a new language shocked into existence by the destruction of the old " : the " organized delirium " of 12-tone musical serialism.

After a coffee break, Harvard Music Department chair Thomas Forrest Kelly introduced the maestro himself, who was fed questions by Griffiths and the chair of Salzburg Universitys Music Department, Jürg Stenzl. Boulez was at his most forthright and charming much mellowed from the young iconoclast who dared to challenge the sacred cows. The subject was " Modernism and French Music " but his comments were more personal and practical.

Stenzl asked about musical nationalism. Before the war, Boulez said, " I was 14, not very old, and Modernist? nothing. " In France, he said, knowledge of Romantic music had stopped with Wagner. Mahler and Bruckner were " missing links. " Spanish composer Manuel de Falla had strong ties with France, but only two pieces of music from the Second Viennese School were known in Paris: Schoenbergs Pierrot Lunaire and Bergs Lyric Suite. After the war, Boulez said, he was " interested in breaking down walls. . . . My generation was eager to have international contact. " But scores were hard to find. " You couldnt buy them and this kind of difficulty was provoking the desire to know what was out of reach. " Darmstadt, in Holland, became not a " school " but a " meeting point, a melting pot " for contemporary composers: Berio, Nono, Stockhausen. Later, after the 1956 Hungarian uprising, Ligeti arrived, then Polish composers. " A generation or two " later, traveling was easier, visas and scores became available. National identity seemed less important (though recently, nationality has resurfaced as a musical impulse). " Berio and Stockhausen were considered as French as me . . . but thats not completely the truth. Im not a typical Frenchman. "

Griffiths asked Boulez how conducting had influenced his composing. " I dont believe in tradition at all, " Boulez answered. " Its like the game I played as a small boy. You whisper to someone, My handkerchief is in my pocket, and it gets passed along until the last person says, The cat has eaten my chocolate. Tradition is mannerism transformed. "

He spoke about changes he made in his own music as a result of having performed it. " Discovery is in the act of performing. Some sounds need more time. I need to perform a piece to be totally aware of what it is. " He compared composing to learning to swim by lying on a chair and practicing the strokes, then suddenly getting into the water and encountering the " resistance " of performing. " Sometimes the metronome doesnt mean anything, though in some music, like Stravinskys Les noces or Bartóks Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion, the pulse is really integrated into the music. " Some tempo markings by Schoenberg or Berg, he said, are impractical a kind of symbolic numerology that can damage the music in performances that take them too literally.

" I have the reputation of being very precise, " he admitted. " With Elliott Carter, I try to be as meticulous as he wants. But I try not to be only precise. I try to give meaning to the phrasing, a spirit. The more you perform a piece, the more intuitive you get to be. " When another conductor plays his music, he doesnt want to be a " back-seat driver. " Griffiths asked, " Have you ever been surprised by someone elses performance of your music in a good way? " Boulez thought for a second and chuckled: " Not really. "

He said he tries to put time between performances of the same piece of music, otherwise you get " fed up " and the music can turn into a product. " You sell your oranges or bananas. " For him, the most interesting part about being a music director was the programming. One of his favorite programs had Bergs Opus 6, Weberns Opus 6, and Mahlers Sixth Symphony ( " 666 " ). Each one has a march; the Berg and the Mahler both have a ländler. " You could feel the continuity, the history. "

Asked about the difference between concerts and recordings, he said that theyre not the same product. " Making a recording, time moves both forward and backward. You want no defect but you want life. Im much more nervous making recordings, but that tension can be good. Theres always the possibility of patching you have your screwdriver, then you fix it. But too many patches can be too artificial. You lose tempo, trajectory, élan. "

He revealed some secret information about his famous recording of Bergs Lulu. Everyone had agreed to have the recording sessions during the run of live performances. But soprano Teresa Stratas discovered that she needed time to recover between performances. " So we recorded all of Lulu without Lulu. " Three months later, Stratas dubbed in the title role. " There are very free places in the last act, but the engineers were extremely good. "

Another favorite program was one he mentioned in the evening session, when his interlocutors were the organizers of this remarkable visit, Harvard music historian Karen Painter and Case Western Reserves Mary Davis. Someone in the audience asked him about Frank Zappa, three of whose pieces he recorded in 1984 (Zappas liner notes conclude: " All material contained herein is for entertainment purposes only and should not be confused with any other form of artistic expression " ). Zappa had tracked him down in Paris. " He wanted to meet me, " Boulez said. " I was surprised. He was intent on going out of the commercial road of rock music. He wanted to compose something his own. I think he would have had a very interesting development. " Boulez wanted to find the right context for Zappa, to show he was taking him seriously, so he put him on a program with Elliott Carter. " Part of the audience was totally dissatisfied. I like this confrontation two sides became aware another side was existing. "

Boulez spoke eloquently about taking harmony classes with Messiaen ( " I heard he was a kind of madman, and I was interested Id never heard this language " ); about revision ( " Why do I revise? Very simple because I am not happy. " ) and the unpredictability of composition ( " You think you are composing chronologically but no. Sometimes I have a kind of map, from alpha to omega; sometimes I dont know where I want to go. " ), and how much he learned about putting music together from writers (Mallarmé, Proust, Faulkner, Joyce); about his first encounter with an American composer (John Cage Boulez put on the first Cage concert in Paris) and his second (Carter); about the influence on his music of the rhythms and percussion sounds of African folk music, the expansions of time in Japanese gagaku, and vocal aspect of the music of the theater of China ( " In 1946, I was on the way to being an enthnomusicologist " ). He spoke about lighting and other theatrical components of his own works ( " You can see with your eyes how a piece is organized " ); about teaching composition ( " You can teach analysis, how to look at music, after that its entirely impossible to teach " ), and his latest project, a two-year workshop with the Festival of Lucerne that would help young musicians develop a composition and ultimately perform it ( " Its not my duty but my interest " ).

Too bad there was no music. How illuminating it would have been to hear his thoughts on a piece of his that had just been performed. No longer brash and obstreperous, at 78 he continues to tell the truth as he sees it, unflinchingly. The passionate sense of that music is hard enough to come by.

AT THE END OF THE LAST CONCERT in Emmanuel Musics seven-year traversal of Schuberts chamber and vocal music, one of 69 eminent musicians and promising newcomers associated with this enterprise, pianist Russell Sherman, who had just concluded the series with a profoundly meditative, " thinking-aloud " performance of Schuberts last and greatest piano sonata, D.960, toasted Craig Smith, " the Orpheus of this project. " It has been an honor, Sherman said, to have been " his teacher and his disciple. "

Earlier came songs most people had never heard in public before and some familiar ones, like Schuberts final work, " Der Hirt auf dem Felsen " ( " The Shepherd on the Rocks " ), with clarinet obbligato by Bruce Creditor and Smith at the piano. The young soprano Alice Tillotson performed it at a weeks notice, replacing the ailing Kendra Colton. Tenor William Hite brought tears to my eyes with Schuberts piercing last solo song, " Der Taubenpost " ( " Pigeon Mail " that faithful carrier pigeon whose real name is " Longing " ). Smith kept his promise that hed been saving some of the best pieces for the end.

Next year were promised " John Harbison and His World, " followed by a four-year Schumann series. No group in this city has attempted such ambitious undertakings, and its hard to imagine another that could succeed so deeply.

Issue Date: May 16 - 22, 2003

Voice boxing
Mike Patton is a man of many bands
BY TED DROZDOWSKI


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SOUNDFIENDS: thanks to Patton's singing and the band's brawny attack, Tomahawk are the most interesting smackdown band to come along since Tool.


Singers are an especially revered species of rocker, not merely because they hold center stage but because their voices put the most dramatic stamp on a groups sound. Mike Patton, who became a star fronting the San Franciscobased Faith No More from 1988 to 1998, has done his best to confound that idea. Over the last five years, hes intensified his efforts to obliterate his voice to transform it into a chameleonic instrument by running it through all sorts of electronic gadgets and amplifiers, growling in a monotone and singing in dizzy falsetto or swooping between the two in a flash with a variety of bands. His most recent recordings with the groups Fantômas, Dillinger Escape Plan, and Tomahawk whose second album, Mit Gas (Ipecac) has just been released mark the 35-year-olds transformation from traditional frontman to the Jimi Hendrix of rock singers, an inventive force whose sonic innovations and penchant for spontaneity are rarely matched in his genre.

Although Tomahawk are Pattons straightest band a riff-powered hard-rock ensemble led by former Jesus Lizard guitarist Duane Denison Mit Gas is full of vocal curveballs, from the reptilian recitation that opens the mordant " Rape This Day " to the distorted howl that punches toe-to-toe at the gnarly guitars of " Capt. Midnight " to the deadpan, mechanical intonations and warm angelic tenor that he ricochets between on " Action 13FH. " Thanks to Pattons singing and the bands brawny attack, which hinges on Denisons charmed way with melodies and crunchy riffs, plus a rhythm section that can ply anything from bull-in-a-china-shop swing to industrial pulverizing, theyre the most interesting smackdown band to come along since Tool, with whom they toured last year. The group employ tunes defined by everything from Denisons slide-guitar hooks to lyrics about deformity and brain eating. They ignore the new-metal staples of hyper-amped tuned-down guitars and post-hardcore chanting, aiming for something edgier balanced atop a classic, heavy-rock foundation.

" I dont see the voice as being different from any other instrument, " Patton says, explaining his MO from the Oregon stop of the Tomahawk tour thatll hit the Roxy this Tuesday. " You should be able to fuck it up with effects and amplifiers and just phrase as insanely as you want, so you can truly use it as an instrument as wild as an electric guitar. "

That was obvious when Patton hit his full stride in 2001, on Fantômass The Directors Cut (Ipecac), where he didnt so much sing as gibber, rant, and yowl through the disc. " Thats my band, " he explains, " so I could fuck things up as much as I wanted. In Tomahawk, everything starts in Duanes little pea brain and comes out his fingers. Hes a great guitarist, and thats why I wanted to work with him. "

As daring as Pattons vocalizing is, hes careful to point out that " there are plenty of other people who sing this way, but often theyre not in rock. Its a little bit more of an avant thing. " He cites occasional Fred Frith collaborator Phil Minton and jazz singer Linda Sharrock as examples. " I think using lots of electronics on my voice led me to being more courageous about improvising. If youre willing to flop around on stage like a fish in front of people, your confidence and ability to go out on a limb improve. "

Indeed, when he went into the studio with his friends in New Jersey art-core outfit Dillinger Escape Plan last year after their singer left, he wore a gas mask and barked out terse, indecipherable phrases. It was a perfect fit for the groups angular attack on Irony Is a Dead Scene (Epitaph), which had the reeling, lurching feel of a high-speed, stop-start Tilt-a-Whirl trip.

When Patton takes the stage at the Roxy with Tomahawk, hell be surrounded with an array of pedals on the floor, much like a sound-fiend guitarist. Hell also be employing a new noisemaker he calls the " Alarm Box, " a custom-built contraption with car alarms, school bells, smoke alarms, horns, and other jarring effects. " I cant run it through the amp like I do my voice, though, " he notes. " Its so obnoxious, people would run out the doors. "

Tomahawk are certainly Pattons most ambitious and mainstream-friendly project since Faith No More. " I was ready when the opportunity came. After years away from straight-ahead rock, it seemed exotic to me. Obviously, I satisfy my more obscene cravings with other projects. Thats the reason to be in a variety of bands: it allows you to approach music from different perspectives and to satisfy all your cravings. And if I feel like Im not being stimulated in a certain way by any of my bands, I can always start another one. "

Tomahawk play the Roxy, 279 Tremont Street in the Theater District, this Tuesday, May 20, with openers the Melvins and Dalek. Call (617) 338-7699.

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Kurt Vonnegut Vs. the !*!@

By Joel Bleifuss, In These Times
February 10, 2003

vonnegutIn November, Kurt Vonnegut turned 80. He published his first novel, Player Piano, in 1952 at the age of 29. Since then he has written 13 others, including Slaughterhouse Five, which stands as one of the pre-eminent anti-war novels of the 20th century.

As war against Iraq looms, I asked Vonnegut to weigh in. Vonnegut is an American socialist in the tradition of Eugene Victor Debs, a fellow Hoosier whom he likes to quote: As long as there is a lower class, I am in it. As long as there is a criminal element, I am of it. As long as there is a soul in prison, I am not free.

You have lived through World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the Reagan wars, Desert Storm, the Balkan wars and now this coming war in Iraq. What has changed, and what has remained the same?

One thing which has not changed is that none of us, no matter what continent or island or ice cap, asked to be born in the first place, and that even somebody as old as I am, which is 80, only just got here. There were already all these games going on when I got here. An apt motto for any polity anywhere, to put on its state seal or currency or whatever, might be this quotation from the late baseball manager Casey Stengel, who was addressing a team of losing professional athletes: Cant anybody here play this game?

My daughter Lily, for an example close to home, who has just turned 20, finds herself as does George W. Bush, himself a kid an heir to a shockingly recent history of human slavery, to an AIDS epidemic and to nuclear submarines slumbering on the floors of fjords in Iceland and elsewhere, crews prepared at a moments notice to turn industrial quantities of men, women and children into radioactive soot and bone meal by means of rockets and H-bomb warheads. And to the choice between liberalism or conservatism and on and on.

What is radically new in 2003 is that my daughter, along with our president and Saddam Hussein and on and on, has inherited technologies whose byproducts, whether in war or peace, are rapidly destroying the whole planet as a breathable, drinkable system for supporting life of any kind. Human beings, past and present, have trashed the joint.

Based on what youve read and seen in the media, what is not being said in the mainstream press about President Bushs policies and the impending war in Iraq?

That they are nonsense.

My feeling from talking to readers and friends is that many people are beginning to despair. Do you think that weve lost reason to hope?

I myself feel that our country, for whose Constitution I fought in a just war, might as well have been invaded by Martians and body snatchers. Sometimes I wish it had been. What has happened, though, is that it has been taken over by means of the sleaziest, low-comedy, Keystone Cops-style coup detat imaginable. And those now in charge of the federal government are upper-crust C-students who know no history or geography, plus not-so-closeted white supremacists, aka Christians, and plus, most frighteningly, psychopathic personalities, or PPs.

To say somebody is a PP is to make a perfectly respectable medical diagnosis, like saying he or she has appendicitis or athletes foot. The classic medical text on PPs is "The Mask of Sanity " by Dr. Hervey Cleckley. Read it! PPs are presentable, they know full well the suffering their actions may cause others, but they do not care. They cannot care because they are nuts. They have a screw loose!

And what syndrome better describes so many executives at Enron and WorldCom and on and on, who have enriched themselves while ruining their employees and investors and country, and who still feel as pure as the driven snow, no matter what anybody may say to or about them? And so many of these heartless PPs now hold big jobs in our federal government, as though they were leaders instead of sick.

What has allowed so many PPs to rise so high in corporations, and now in government, is that they are so decisive. Unlike normal people, they are never filled with doubts, for the simple reason that they cannot care what happens next. Simply cant. Do this! Do that! Mobilize the reserves! Privatize the public schools! Attack Iraq! Cut health care! Tap everybodys telephone! Cut taxes on the rich! Build a trillion-dollar missile shield! Fuck habeas corpus and the Sierra Club and In These Times, and kiss my ass!

How have you gotten involved in the anti-war movement? And how would you compare the movement against a war in Iraq with the anti-war movement of the Vietnam era?

When it became obvious what a dumb and cruel and spiritually and financially and militarily ruinous mistake our war in Vietnam was, every artist worth a damn in this country, every serious writer, painter, stand-up comedian, musician, actor and actress, you name it, came out against the thing. We formed what might be described as a laser beam of protest, with everybody aimed in the same direction, focused and intense. This weapon proved to have the power of a banana-cream pie three feet in diameter when dropped from a stepladder five-feet high.

And so it is with anti-war protests in the present day. Then as now, TV did not like anti-war protesters, nor any other sort of protesters, unless they rioted. Now, as then, on account of TV, the right of citizens to peaceably assemble, and petition their government for a redress of grievances, aint worth a pitcher of warm spit, as the saying goes.

As a writer and artist, have you noticed any difference between how the cultural leaders of the past and the cultural leaders of today view their responsibility to society?

Responsibility to which society? To Nazi Germany? To the Stalinist Soviet Union? What about responsibility to humanity in general? And leaders in what particular cultural activity? I guess you mean the fine arts. I hope you mean the fine arts. ... Anybody practicing the fine art of composing music, no matter how cynical or greedy or scared, still cant help serving all humanity. Music makes practically everybody fonder of life than he or she would be without it. Even military bands, although I am a pacifist, always cheer me up.

But that is the power of ear candy. The creation of such a universal confection for the eye, by means of printed poetry or fiction or history or essays or memoirs and so on, isnt possible. Literature is by definition opinionated. It is bound to provoke the arguments in many quarters, not excluding the hometown or even the family of the author. Any ink-on-paper author can only hope at best to seem responsible to small groups or like-minded people somewhere. He or she might as well have given an interview to the editor of a small-circulation publication. Maybe we can talk about the responsibilities to their societies of architects and sculptors and painters another time. And I will say this: TV drama, although not yet classified as fine art, has on occasion performed marvelous services for Americans who want us to be less paranoid, to be fairer and more merciful. M.A.S.H. and Law and Order, to name only two shows, have been stunning masterpieces in that regard.

That said, do you have any ideas for a really scary reality TV show?

C students from Yale. It would stand your hair on end.

What targets would you consider fair game for a satirist today?

Assholes.

Joel Bleifuss, The Interviewer, is the editor of In These Times.

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'Camp X-Ray? Very boring ...

Protest art

Interview by Bernadette McNulty
Wednesday October 15, 2003
The Guardian


Manchester art installation This is Camp X-Ray has, for one week, re-created a miniature version of the US internment camp at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. Lucy Williams, 21, an ethical business adviser from Manchester, volunteered to be a prisoner for 24 hours.

As soon as I heard about the project I knew I wanted to be a prisoner. Marches and protests don't have much impact anymore and you need to do something radical to get attention.

At the meeting point on Saturday, I was arrested by the guards and forced into the back of a Land Rover. All the windows were blacked out. When we arrived, they handcuffed me and put a bag over my head. I was marched to a sandpit and ordered to kneel down. They made me stay there for about half an hour. I was really cold and my legs hurt, but they wouldn't let me move.

There was another prisoner next to me and, when he tried to move, the guards shouted and pushed the butt of their rifle into his back. It was quite theatrical but, at the same time, I wasn't prepared for how scared I felt.

They gave me a uniform and took my fingerprints and then I was locked up in the dormitory with the other prisoners. I was the only woman. We were fed the same diet as the real prisoners, unseasoned vegetables and water, but we got porridge for breakfast because Manchester is a bit colder than Cuba. We spent most of the time locked up. It was incredibly boring.

Some of the guards were quite aggressive and there was a lot of role-playing. Wearing a uniform was having an effect on them. If you answered back, they would punish you by taking away your privileges or making you kneel down. I could feel some of the prisoners becoming depressed and subdued. It really got to you being shouted at all the time.

The worst thing was the sensory deprivation. When I couldn't see or hear anything I wanted to panic. I jumped if someone touched me and the ground was so uneven I was scared I'd fall down. I felt euphoric whenever my mask was taken off.

I barely slept at night. There was one mattress between four of us and the others had to sleep on the plywood floor. I felt very lonely. We could hear drunks outside shouting at us. The only thing that got me through was knowing I could leave.

I couldn't have been inside there for longer than 24 hours, but I'm glad I did it. I feel inspired to carry on taking action. I spent so much time thinking about how the real prisoners must feel. Everybody in the camp is creating their own art performance. The public is locked outside, but they are forced to look and think about what is going on behind the fence.

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A large detail of "Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?," which has returned to France for the Gauguin exhibition.

The Colors of Paradise as Imagined by Gauguin
By ALAN RIDING

Published: October 14, 2003, The New York Times

PARIS, Oct. 13 When Paul Gauguin sailed from Marseille for Tahiti on April 1, 1891, he was confident of finding a terrestrial paradise with natives living in sensual harmony with nature and ancient deities. That image had been reinforced by early travelers and by a book published to coincide with the 1889 Colonial Exhibition in Paris. The Tahitians "know only a life of sweetness," it noted, adding, "For them, to live is to sing and love."

But the reality was painfully different. In the 19th century, traditional Tahitian culture had gradually been smothered by Roman Catholic and Protestant missionaries and by French colonial administrators. Dismayed, Gauguin devoted the next 12 years to recreating in paintings, sculptures and engravings this paradise lost in his mind, an idyllic world of naked maidens, lush landscapes and strange spirits.

Yet while Gauguin went native, taking teenage mistresses, wearing local costumes and building his own wooden hut, his ultimate purpose was to impress the art world back home. And he did, although posthumously. Through his use of color and his expropriation of primitive art, he eventually earned himself a place alongside Cézanne and van Gogh as a precursor of Modern art.

Now, to coincide with the 100th anniversary of his death, this story is being retold in "Gauguin-Tahiti: Studio in the Tropics," a new exhibition at the Grand Palais in Paris through Jan. 19. The show, which includes some 50 paintings, 30 sculptures and 60 graphic works as well as photographs and books, will also be on display from Feb. 29 to June 20 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, co-organizer of the exhibition.

In the Grand Palais, a place of honor has been given to Boston's Tahitian masterpiece, "Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?" Painted in 1897 and described by Gauguin as his "artistic testament," the large oil has returned to France for the first time since 1949. It was first displayed at Ambroise Vollard's Paris gallery in 1898. That Vollard himself ended up buying and reselling "Where Do We Come From?" for a modest fee is a measure of the initial resistance in Paris to Gauguin's Tahitian works. Yet between bouts of illness, in part the result of syphilis, Gauguin kept working, convinced he had found the key to what would become known as Post-Impressionism.

This key was color. Describing color as "the language of the listening eye," he aimed "to give the musical sensations that flow from it, from its own nature, from its internal, mysterious, enigmatic power."

These ideas were the result of a personal and artistic journey that was already apparent in 1888, when he traveled to Panama and Martinique. Later that year he spent two months with van Gogh in Arles, where, before falling out, they dreamed of a "studio of the tropics."

Gauguin liked to romanticize his Peruvian ancestry on his mother's side. "You know that I have Indian blood, Inca blood, in me and it's reflected in everything I do," he wrote in 1889. "It's the basis of my personality. I try to confront rotten civilization with something more natural, based on savagery." Logically, to reconnect with his primitive instinct, he had to leave France.

Yet by then, as apparent from oils like "The Loss of Virginity" painted in 1890 and 1891 in Brittany, he had already begun using blocks of color and boldly challenging perspective. But he seemed convinced he could find a new visual language only in an exotic environment far from Paris.

Things did not turn out as he hoped. Having reached Tahiti in June 1891, he soon fled the island's Europeanized capital, Papeete, for the village of Mataiea, where he met Teha'amana, 14, who became his mistress and model. Early in 1892 he was hospitalized, and by June he was so poor that he asked the French authorities to repatriate him. Yet when he sailed for France in June 1893, he carried with him 66 paintings and numerous sculptures.

 


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